The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale, is a Western novel that slides past genre into mainstream like butter dripping off a hot biscuit. A young boy becomes a man seeking revenge on the men who kidnapped his sister. The story is very simple, and one we’ve all read before, yet in Lansdale’s hands, this classic plot takes on a life of its own, and when fueled by his vivid characters, the plot disappears altogether, forcing you to turn the pages, compelled to follow them until the end.
Barely escaping the pox, Jack Parker, his Grandfather, and his sister Lula, head out-of-town with the deeds to their property and little more than the clothes on their backs. When they finally board a ferry to get away from the diseased land, nasty outlaws with quick tempers make matters worse. Mother Nature rears her ugly head, and once the skies clear Jack finds himself alone. Only one thing matters for Jack; Finding the men who took his sister.
I’m going to admit that when I read the first page of this novel, I groaned. Lately, when I encounter a novel written in the 1st person point-of-view, I tend to groan because there aren’t too many writers that can pull off that POV very well. But then I thought, this is a Lansdale novel, it’s got to be good. And I was correct. If anyone can pull off a well-written 1st person narrative, it’s Lansdale. He does it proper not so much by focusing on the main character, but by widening the lens to capture the lives of his other characters. When filtered through the eyes of a naive, still-wet-behind-the-ears boy like Jack Parker, these characters come alive in ways only Lansdale could achieve.
The other characters include a gravedigger, a dwarf bounty-hunter, a beautiful lady of the night, and a stinky old hog. Once Jack joins forces with these misfits, the real adventure begins. As unlikely as they sound, these characters test Jack’s trust issues, and while he never loses focus of the task at hand, he still manages to question their motives, which creates a very interesting dynamic for the reader. Who can you trust when everyone seems to let you down at every corner?
The outlaw thugs are as nasty as they come. Lansdale builds our dread of these characters by keeping them off stage for most of the novel. We learn more about them from our heroes encounters with the other characters inhabiting the story, and it’s this second-hand history that scares us more than jumping into their point of view ever could.
Lansdale’s vivid style put you in the Thicket. You feel the muggy heat, smell the funk of the characters, hear the outlaws hiding in the brush, and feel the pains and pleasures of a young man desperately needing to grow up and learn to trust people. One thing about Lansdale’s style that interests me is his vivid description of one character in particular. There’s a certain very well-known actor that could play the dwarf bounty-hunter, Shorty, to near perfection. That’s all I’m going to say on the matter. Last thing I need is people complaining about me planting an image in their heads. I don’t know if it was Lansdale’s intention to plant that image himself, and it really doesn’t matter, as it’s neither a good thing or a bad thing, just something I found very interesting.
The Thicket captures East Texas as only someone from that area could. Caught at that strange time when both horses and motor cars roamed the trails, the story is a snapshot of the point where America begins to grow up, just as Jack takes those first giant steps into manhood. And while Jack is becoming a man, we go through that change with him, feeling every confusing emotion, reliving the conflicting expectations of our world when faced with all that life throws at us, and when we finally break through the other side and the blinders are ripped away, we learn that there is only one thing that really matters, that the love of family and friends is the strongest love of all.