The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale

September 5, 2013

So you’ve read True Grit but thought it could be both funnier and dirtier, maybe with a bit more violence? May I introduce you to The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale.

(It’s worth noting that if you thought True Grit was excellent, you’ll like this one too.)

The Thicket

I imagine it’s rare that a book can be summed up by its opening line, but The Thicket is one such book. I’ll share this and spare you what would be an even lengthier synopsis than you’re already going to get.

I didn’t suspect the day Grandfather came out and got me and my sister, Lula, and hauled us off toward the ferry that I’d soon end up with worse things happening than had already come upon us or that I’d take up with a gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog, let alone find true love and kill someone, but that’s exactly how it was.

Well, there you have it. There’s more to it than that, of course, because that sentence doesn’t convey how truly hilarious this book can be. It’s dark fiction, but it is funny dark fiction – which is the best kind. Because if you can’t laugh about it, you have to cry – and no one likes to cry. Well, maybe a few of you, but not me. I may or may not be dissembling here. You decide.

Jack Parker loses his parents. It’s not wholly unexpected, as both of his parents had smallpox, but still… Jack and his sister Lula are to be taken in by their aunt, with their grandfather transporting them to their final destination. Things don’t go as planned, the ferry crossing the river is high-jacked by bandits and then overturned by a tornado, but not before his grandfather is shot and killed. Jack survives. As does Lula, but the highwaymen kidnap her with the full intention of violating her. Jack plans to rescue her, but being 16 and ill-equipped for such a raid hinders his progress. He then meets Shorty (one short misanthrope) and Eustace (sometimes gravedigger and son of a slave), who promise to rescue his sister in exchange for the deed to his property. Eustace has a belligerent hog that’s smarter than your average dog and far more likely to eat you. And so begins the adventure so summarily described in the opening sentence.

Joe R. Lansdale is a gifted storyteller; he brings you into the wilds of East Texas and never lets you go. Do you like your fiction dark and irreverent? (You do? Me too.) In The Thicket, one minute you’ll be enjoying (or groaning at, depending on your penchant for wordplay) short/dwarf puns and the next you’ll be cringing as the rusty nail is shoved through various male appendages (though I imagine there’s only one that counts for anything, but if you want to look at the positive side, you’d always have a place to sit if you’re quite literally nailed to a chair).

One of Lansdale’s hallmarks is creating an incredible sense of place. In this case, the setting is east Texas just before the oil boom. It is of some discussion between Shorty and Eustace whether oil is the way of the future; Shorty says yes, Eustace says no. This gives you great insight into the dynamic of the two would-be heroes. Shorty provides a large part of the intelligent comic relief, while Eustace’s humor is a bit less intentional. While both are great characters, Shorty is brilliant.

And then there’s Jack. Poor Jack can’t catch a break, from a grandmother run over by a cow to a raft overturned by a tornado; he’s seen his share of tragedy. Connecting with the two unlikely companions gives Jack the chance he needs to get Lula back. Along the way, Jack must learn to balance his staunch moral view of the world with the realities he must face. He then rescues a prostitute, after procuring her services (morality is a slippery slope), and the unlikely foursome set out after the bandits. Although The Thicket could be considered a western, it is also a coming of age story. True Grit meets Stand by Me, if you will (to borrow the very apt sentiment from the New York Times Book Review).

You are so definite, kid. Seldom right, but always certain.

Joe R. Lansdale has done (again) what he does best. He has written a wonderful, bizarre story with East Texas roots and enough humor to take the edge off his typical darkness. There are gun fights, torture scenes, whore houses, and humor. In this part western, part coming of age story, none of the characters remain unscathed, but the battle might produce a loyal hero or two. The Thicket* is bloody, funny, and, at times, brilliant. 4/5.

BaconTomato

Did you know that America celebrated National Bacon Day this past weekend? I did not partake in the celebrations, as I’m not particularly fond of bacon. However, in honor of such a day (and because there is little food beyond beans, gravy, and sweet potatoes mentioned in the novel), I am recommending a Cheddar, Bacon, and Tomato Panini. There was a hog in the novel, after all. (You need not point out that I’m grasping at straws here. I know.)

*I received a review copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review, The Thicket releases on September 10, 2013.

28 comments

  • booksaremyfavouriteandbest

    It reminds me of the opening line of Richard Ford’s ‘Canada’ –

    “First I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.”

    No bacon?…I’m struggling…Lucky we’re already friends.

    • Rory

      It actually does sound quite similar, doesn’t it?

      I don’t hate bacon, but I’d be totally fine if it didn’t exist. I might miss maple bacon. If I’m looking for flavoring, I’m far more likely to add basil to something (if we’re sticking with a ‘b’ theme).

  • DrFrood

    One minor criticism: “…and far more liking to eat you.” – you mean ‘likely to eat you’?

    Other than that, book sounds interesting – True Grit meets Stand By Me with added groan-worthy wordplay. I’ll add it to the list.

    I didn’t know that America had a bacon day, although I can’t say I’m particularly surprised. Thanks for the info…

    • Rory

      Well, shit. Maybe I liked it better the first way.

      I didn’t and you were correct, again. It’s fixed – so thanks. I’m thinking I should not write anything after midnight, I don’t catch my mistakes as easily. As for the book, I liked it, but I don’t know that I’ll particularly remember it 6 months from now. And the glory of the puns is slightly diminished by the character later adding “and that could be considered a pun, if you think about it” (or something similar).

      It’s America, bacon isn’t good for you – of course there’s a day to celebrate it. National French Fry Day and National Ice Cream Day are both celebrated in July, as is National Cheesecake Day and National Tequila Day. National Burger Day is in May, National Cheese Lovers Day is in January, and National Beer Day is in April. Equally unsurprising, there’s not a National Kale Day (though happily there is a proposal for one in the works) or National Quinoa Day (which I’m okay with, too…textural?).

      • DrFrood

        All I can say about kale is that I’m surprised they don’t advertise it with music by the Velvet Underground.

        …and that could be considered a pun, if you think about it…

        • Rory

          I laughed at that, out loud (I will never be cool enough to use acronyms, or it’s possible I’m too pretentious). But really, I think if it was people might like kale more, myself included.

          Mildly related: Pale Blue Eyes probably ranks among my top 10 or 15 favorite songs (If I could make the world as pure and strange as what I see, I’d put you in the mirror, I put in front of me).

          • DrFrood

            Acronyms are never cool. Not even if Serge Gainsbourg or Leonard Cohen had ever used them.

            Pale Blue Eyes – great song

  • Paula (Find a girl who reads)

    I’ve been thinking about reading True Grit, but after reading your review I’m definitely going to give The Thicket a try first :)

    • Rory

      I prefer The Thicket to True Grit, but both are good. I am one of the few who didn’t love the new True Grit (I liked it well enough), if you ever read/watch it, let me know what you think.

  • Heather

    Not fond of bacon?! [GASP]

    Seriously, though, I’ve not read True Grit or seen the movie. I like a good Western/ranch story now and then, but I’m not necessarily a fan. Don’t know why. I would say it’s the violence, but I can handle Stephen King, so…I don’t know.

    • Rory

      It’s…meh. I wouldn’t be sad without it. I can’t even remember the last time I ate it. It’s been a while and I’ve banned bacon from my house. I’m currently trying very had to be a leafy green eater. Then I’m trying hard not to be miserable because if I eat another salad I might cry…

      I couldn’t read a book like this all the time, though violence in fiction doesn’t bother me (as opposed to any type of violence in life, which I find incredibly distressing, I had to completely stop watching the news (still read it though)). If you can handle Stephen King, Lansdale will be easy.

      • Heather

        I was just teasing about the bacon. Have you tried any of the vegetarian meat substitutes? You could eat the salads as sides to something else. I tried the only-leafy-greens thing once and failed miserably.

        I’m like you–I can read about violence and not get too wound up (mostly), but it’s very hard for me to SEE it, whether on the news or in movies. It makes me feel sick to my stomach. :(

        • Rory

          I eat tofu occasionally and I do love a good veggie burger. I’m having temporary trouble with my thyroid and if I so much as look at a piece of bread, I gain a pound. And, you know, my world will be over if my thighs touch.

          (Apologies for the whiny obnoxiousness of that, the sad part is I’m only mostly kidding – it’s hard to be short and, like violence, it’s hard to ignore what’s considered the standard of beauty – it’s always there front and center. It’s like “there was another rape and murder this weekend and four shootings, the US has given itself permission to use chemical weapons on Syria, have you heard about this new weight loss/anti-wrinkle cream/ab workout, and check out Kate’s post baby body!!!”. Just…ugh. Rant over).

          At any rate, I still eat some form of pizza once a week, so it’s not all bad.

  • Charleen

    I saw the beer in the picture as I was scrolling down, and figured the pairing would be something along the lines of, “Because after a day like that, who wouldn’t need a beer?”

    And THANK YOU! I sometimes feel like the only person (well, only non-vegetarian) who isn’t crazy over bacon! I mean, if it’s being offered as part of breakfast, I might have a single strip… and that pretty much fills my bacon quota for the next six months.

    • Rory

      Actually I *almost* added something to the effect like I’d really enjoy having a beer with the author. He seems like an interesting guy.

      Exactly, one or twice a year is all I need. I feel like a new obsession with bacon has gripped the nation. But why?!? It’s fatty, chewy, and the flavor only mildly enjoyable. I tried beefy jerky the other day and almost threw up. I guess I’m just not a fan of meat in strips. I’ll live longer for it, probably. Though my love of pizza will probably be the death of me…

  • cleopatralovesbooks

    Great review it sounds a little different to my normal fare

  • Words for Worms

    You seem hell bent on finding all the best books and making them sound irresistible. How am I supposed to resist a gun-shooting dwarf? I mean really!

    • Rory

      That’s my job. I take it very seriously. Although in all honesty, the gun-shooting dwarf is one of the best characters I’ve read in a long time – by far the highlight of the book.

  • picturemereading

    lol I didnt know that yesterday was bacon day…my husband loves bacon..even bacon flavored ice cream!

    • Rory

      There’s bacon flavored ice cream? I have to admit that sounds unappealing, but I’ve never tried it so I can’t say for sure…

  • Sarah Says Read

    UGH a panini sounds good… maybe a turkey bacon one though.

    Added this to my library list! It sounds a bit ridiculous, but in a fun, weird way :)

    • Rory

      If the panini was for me, I’d vote to skip the bacon altogether.

      The book is odd, but well worth a read. Lansdale is a very distinctive, very good storyteller.

  • lynnsbooks

    This sort of falls outside my usual book zone but I like the sound. Plus I enjoyed the Sisters Brothers – and that also fell in the ‘outside of comfort zone’ category so I think I’ll give it a try.
    Lynn :D

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