Edge Of Dark Water by Joe R Lansdale
Here it is! The first book by Lansdale that I have read that didn’t have either a Hap or a Leonard anywhere to be seen.
Edge Of Dark Water is set during the time of the Great Depression in East Texas. Sue Ellen Wilson is a 16 year old from a poor family, living in the ‘river bottoms’ of the Sabine River. I have no idea what river bottoms are in this context, and it’s never made clear, but that’s my problem and I’m surviving fine whilst carrying such a burden.
I can tell you that the river bottoms are chock-full of very poor people, both white and black, who live parallel lives, albeit under the ugly shadow of the KKK and endemic racism. Times are tough everywhere during the Depression, yet for the residents of this region, life is a struggle to remain one step ahead of either a violent death, or one borne from malnutrition. As Sue Ellen remarks upon seeing a particular gentleman, ‘In my world, finding someone with all their teeth, both ears, and their nose on straight by the time they reached forty was as rare as finding a watermelon in a hen’s nest’.
Sue Ellen has two good friends in Jinx and Terry. Jinx is black and straight, and Terry is white and gay although, given both the period and location, Terry has wisely decided to try to hide his sexual orientation. Jinx can’t hide her skin colour and is much too fiery to allow it to matter. She is a beacon of hope in this novel, and a source of many witty quips. She refuses to be pigeon-holed by her racial identity, and has a temper and the courage to do something about it.
Anyone who has read my previous reviews of the Hap and Leonard series, by Lansdale, will know that Leonard is both black and gay. He too, like Jinx, refuses to allow his race and sexual orientation to be used as a weapon to beat him down. Lansdale appears determined to tackle such issues head on, and I feel that he deserves great credit for doing so. He presents the matter with great humour yet with serious intent, and I admire him for it.
Getting back to Edge Of Dark Water, Sue Ellen’s friend, May Lynn Baxter, turns up dead. Yet she has left behind a map apparently belonging to her also dead bank robber brother which indicates where he has buried his ill-gotten gains. Sue Ellen and her friends are determined to escape the poverty and hardship of live in the bottoms, and so set out to recover the loot and make it to California, to no doubt appear in a Steinbeck novel.
The river is the central star in this tale. As I read this very entertaining story (Lansdale writes no other), I began to think that it was as if the Lansdale had done Huckleberry Finn. Now that I’ve written that, it sounds like the author has committed an indecent act with a minor which would, in East Texas, get him a spicy injection, and rightly so. I shall rephrase it and say that there are similarities between the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Edge Of Dark Water. I consider such a comparison to be a compliment to both Lansdale and Twain, not that Twain would care at this time (maybe his ghost will challenge me to a duel).
Sue Ellen and her unlikely gang use the river to flee to their dreams. But unfortunately for all, they are pursued by some very nasty individuals intent on recovering any money that they think the gang may have acquired. To add to the problems sitting upon the shoulders of the young runaways, there are rumours that the serial-killer and sometimes hitman, Skunk, who is deemed a myth by many, is also on their trail.
It all adds up to a rollicking adventure, as the beautiful East Texas scenery provides a fitting backdrop. This novel has it all, and the possibility of a sequel of a kind is certainly there. I would wait with baited breath on that.
If I had to describe Edge Of Dark Water, I would say it is a cross between the aforementioned Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice And Men, with a touch of The Outlander, by Gil Adamson (I hope to provide a review of this beauty in the future). I know that’s quite a mix, yet this book is quite a story.
It’s not a long tale and was so engaging that Lansdale could easily have increased it by 50%. It’s still well paced, and the author has created yet another host of quirky and entertaining characters. Lansdale has a gift for presenting personalities that stick in the memory, such as the Reverend Joy and the old crone, known only as the ‘old woman’ throughout. As distasteful as the crone was, the thought stuck in my mind of how terrible it would be to die without anyone knowing your name. An unmarked grave is a tragic thing, regardless of the person lying in it. At least if you knew the occupant, and they were horrible (when alive), you could still sneak up and piss over them and feel good about it. But an unmarked grave…
What more can I tell you about Edge Of Dark Water? It’s not heavy going. The issues dealt with are serious, and are treated respectfully, yet the overall effect is of having read a good ole adventure which should leave you wanting more. That’s what I took from it anyhow.
A tale of friendship, hardship and family, in a time of little where the only plenty was poverty, wrapped in a desire for something better. Sue Ellen and her merry band may just make it.
Sult scale rating: 8 out of 10. A thoroughly enjoyable and wisecracking adventure.