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.
Thus begins master yarnspinner Joe R. Lansdale’s latest East Texas tale, The Thicket. Like most of Lansdale’s fiction, it starts strong, travels fast, and packs a mighty punch.
Jack Parker, a teenager in rural East Texas at the turn of the twentieth century, has seen his fair share of tragedy. He and his younger sister, Lula, have just buried their parents, who were victims of a small pox epidemic that swept through the region. Their grandfather, a cantankerous preacher, plans on escorting them to Kansas to live with distant relatives that neither of the young people have ever met. Their journey takes them to a ferry across the Sabine River and a fateful meeting with a band of very bad men. Soon, Grandfather is killed, Lula taken, and the ferry torn apart by a water tornado. Jack gathers himself up and tries to find help in getting his sister back. Help comes in the form of an unlikely pair of bounty hunters. One is a dwarf with a philosophical streak and the other is a former gravedigger who is constantly in the company of a wild hog named Hog. The three set off across the largely lawless wilds of East Texas in search of the desperadoes. Along the way, the staunchly religious Jack will have all of his sureties questioned and will learn that the world, and the human heart, is made up of mostly shades of gray.
This novel reads like Quentin Tarantino had made a version of True Grit, only with Lansdale’s dark and ornery sense of humor and crackling dialog. It’s crass, it’s violent, and unapologetically earthy as Texas red dirt. But it also has a lot of heart. You learn to love the characters, despite their moral failings. They’re like real people–a little bit angel, a little bit devil–that have been thrown into dire circumstances again and again. Lansdale also takes some of the various western tropes (“the whore with a heart of gold”, for example) and turns them into something special. The book is familiar territory but the story, nevertheless, comes alive.
One warning: The Thicket is a dark and violent tale. There is blood, guts, and more than one mention of sexual violence. It can be a rough read. But it is a tale well-told by a master.