Edge of Dark Water, by Joe R. Lansdale (Mulholland, March 2012)

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Joe R. Lansdale's new novel is a strange, compelling blend of multiple myths and genres.

Fantasist David Eddings has said that once an author taps into the mythic, he may as well be peddling dope, as the customers will line up for his product. If he’s right, Joe R. Lansdale had best prepare to do more business than Eli Lilly, as his new novel, Edge of Dark Water, is a brilliant mixture of myth, rural noir, and adventure. It’s a shuffling of the Odyssey, Huck Finn, and James Ross’s lost noir classic They Don’t Dance Much, a wild East Texas hybrid of the Southwestern Humor school of American literature and Jim Thompson’s bitter satire. It is both a hand from the archetypal tarot deck of fiction and something uniquely its own . . . and it’s also a heck of a good read.

The setting is 1930s East Texas, and the narrator is a 16-year-old girl named Sue Ellen, the daughter of a family that falls somewhere between what the locals would have called “no-account” and “white trash.” While fishing with her father and her friend Terry, they accidentally dredge up the weighted corpse of May Lynn, the teenaged local beauty who had dreamed of going to Hollywood. After May Lynn’s pauper’s burial, Sue Ellen, Terry, and their African American friend Jinx decide she deserves better, and hatch a bizarre plan to cremate the corpse, carry her ashes to Hollywood, and scatter them there.

In the process, they discover a jar of stolen money hidden by May Lynn’s dead brother, and they take the money, the ashes, and Sue Ellen’s abused and patent medicine-addicted mother, steal a raft, and head down the Sabine River toward the nearest town with a bus station and what they hope will be an escape to a new life out West. Their adventures echo both Huck’s and Odysseus’s — they are pursued by a one-eyed, rock-throwing constable named Sy, they face the temptations of a sort of Lotus-land, and they are endangered by a whirlpool, and Lansdale underscores all of these elements for the observant reader’s amusement, without quite playing them for laughs in an O Brother, Where Art Thou manner. They also flee a remorseless boogeyman, a hired tracker/killer known as Skunk who has a hobby of collecting his prey’s hands.

Throughout the novel, Lansdale’s characters speak with a rural Texas turn-of-phrase that is scathing, dysphemistic, and sometimes riotously funny — voices that readers of Thompson’s Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 will recognize:

Telephoning for fish worked all right, though not as good as dynamite, but Daddy didn’t like cranking that telephone to hot up the wire that went into the water to ‘lectrocute the fish. He said he was always afraid that one of the little colored boys that lived up from us might be out there swimming and get a dose of ‘lectricity that would kill him deader than a Cyprus stump, or at best, do something to his brain and make him retarded as his cousin Ronnie who didn’t have sense enough to get in out of the rain and might hesitate in a hail storm.

Yes, the narrative strains credulity from time to time (as did Night of the Hunter, another card in the author’s deck), but Lansdale isn’t writing for verisimilitude — he’s working the mythopoetic side of the street, and as always (and as Eddings predicted), the reader is swept along by the power of the archetypes at work.  The book’s blurb describes this as a new direction for Lansdale — while this is accurate, it doesn’t begin to reflect the compelling strength of the characters and story. Edge of Dark Water is exciting, creepy, funny — and remarkable.

Warren Moore is Associate Professor of English at Newberry College in Newberry, SC. He also writes at his home blog, where he is known as “Professor Mondo.”