Even if you think that western novels are not your “thing,” you really need to read THE THICKET. Joe R. Lansdale, whose output over the past three decades or so is exceeded only by the quality of the works produced, brings his usual “A” game to this book. He merges a grim, dark tale of revenge with a parable of a quest while combining memorable turns of phrase with odd --- and oddly believable --- characters to create one of his best novels to date.
THE THICKET is told in the voice of Jack Parker, a teenager living in East Texas at the turn of the 20th century. The oil boom is just beginning, and the world is full of uncertainty, a feeling that the center may not hold. Jack has experienced more than his share of tragedy. Having lost his grandmother to a tragic farm accident, Jack and his younger sister, Lula, are once again facing loss as the book begins. A smallpox epidemic is roaring through Texas, and their parents are among the victims. Jack and Lula’s grandfather, a crusty, capable customer, is transporting them to their aunt’s home in Kansas when circumstances for them become even worse. In the seeming blink of an eye, their grandfather is murdered and Lula is abducted, while Jack is left for dead.
"I have been reading Lansdale practically from the beginning of his career, and his turns of phrase continue to be as original and memorable as it was in his early work..."
Jack stumbles into the nearest town and, through a series of events, recruits a somewhat unusual group to join him in hunting down the outlaws who have Lula. The group’s first members consist of an ex-slave and current gravedigger, Eustace, and his friend, a very deadly bounty hunter named Shorty who, if you haven’t guessed, happens to be a dwarf. And yes, he reacts badly to jokes about his height. They are eventually joined by Jimmie Sue, a prostitute who lends a street-wise savvy to an odd but sincere attraction towards Jack. The group, adding a member or two along the way, experiences a series of adventures that are relayed in Lansdale’s dark, matter-of-fact prose, which is occasionally brutal, often funny, and almost always brilliant.
I have been reading Lansdale practically from the beginning of his career, and his turns of phrase continue to be as original and memorable as it was in his early work; I don’t recall that he has ever repeated himself, even when revisiting certain themes. It bears mentioning that THE THICKET is not all action. There are several passages where Shorty and Eunice share their respective backstories with Jack, and Shorty, in particular, attempts to school Jack in the ways of the hard and difficult life that is ahead of him, whether or not he recovers Lula. The dialogue, though, is as vibrant and exciting as Jack’s accounts of the violent adventures that he and his unlikely team experience as they follow, with difficulty, the trail of Lula’s abductors through a land where order is more of an exception than the rule.
While ultimately the story of Jack’s coming of age, THE THICKET is also a masterful account of how his relationship with Eustace and Shorty slowly evolves from an uneasy alliance to a solid friendship. As for Jack’s relationship with Jimmie Sue, you’ll have to read the book, but you won’t be sorry. If you have read Lansdale before, you know to expect the unexpected. And if this is your first exposure to Lansdale’s world, I can almost guarantee you that it will not be your last.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 13, 2013