Written by: Wayne C. Rogers
I got hooked on Joe when I read his fantastic novel, The Bottoms, back in 2002. From that point on, I made it a mission in life to read everything by this man, who certainly knew what fabulous storytelling was about and always delivered the goods. This led me to Joe’s two Western novels, The Magic Wagon and Blood Dance. I devoured each one in a single setting. Joe’s two books turned me on to Western novels, and I soon found myself reading the Pulitzer Prize winner, Larry McMurtry and his eight-hundred-page door stop, Lonesome Dove, the novels of Louis L’Amore, Jack Ketchum’s The Crossing, the “Hitch/Cole” westerns by the late Robert Parker, and the soon-to-be-released, The Guns of Santa Sangre by Eric Red.
The Thicket by Joe Lansdale is a powerful western that hooks you in the opening chapter. You find yourself wanting to learn more as the young hero travels a path of death and destruction, seeking to rescue his kidnapped sister and to revenge the murder of his grandfather. In other words, this is a story about heroes who face insurmountable odds to do what’s right.
The story starts off with Jack Parker and his younger sister, Lula, who are being taken to his aunt’s house by his grandfather. Jack and Lula’s parents have died from the smallpox, and the grandfather isn’t able to care for the two kids. He wants to place them in a safe environment to live, until he can get everything set up to provide for them. That opportunity, however, never arrives. When crossing a river on a ferry, tragedy strikes in the forms of a river tornado and Mad Dog Bill. Mad Dog Bill shoots Jack’s grandfather after some heated words, and then the river tornado capsizes the ferry, tossing the passengers and animals every which way along the banks of the Sabine River.
Jack Parker barely survives the ordeal and soon discovers that the bank-robbing bandits have also made it through the situation and taken Lula with them to the opposite bank. Jack quickly promises himself to find her and to bring his little sister back, no matter what it takes.
Making his way to the nearby town that’s just had its bank robbed and the sheriff killed, Jack discovers the names of the bandits who have his sister—Mad Dog Bill, Nigger Pete and Fatty Worth. After a close encounter with the town’s people, Jack happens upon a giant of a black man named Eustace. Eustace is a grave digger and has a large-sized hog following him around like a trusted pet. Eustace also has a friend named Shorty, who’s a dwarf bounty hunter, a reader of books, and a gazer of the nightly stars. Jack has his doubts about a dwarf bounty hunter helping him to save Lula. The black grave digger, however, is definitely a go. The only problem is that Eustace won’t hunt down the bandits without the help of Shorty, so Jack has to agree to sign over the land deeds to his parent’s and grandfather’s farms to both of them, if they succeed in rescuing his younger sister.
The three of them, along with Hog, set out after the bandits. When one of the bandits (Fatty) breaks off from the group and goes it alone, they decide to follow him, thinking he might be easier to capture and have some useful information to offer about where the others are heading.
Jack, Shorty, Eustace, and the hog trail Fatty to a town where they soon meet up with Sheriff Winston, a former bounty hunter who was once tortured by the Comanche and watched as his family was murdered. It’s also where they meet Jimmie Sue, a young prostitute who’s tired of the life and wants to get away. Both the sheriff and Jimmie Sue decide to tag along with the group for their own reasons, but mainly to help get Lula back to her brother. Once Fatty is captured and pistol whipped by Shorty, who seems to have a special talent for those kinds of things, they find out that the bandits are headed to a part of North Texas where the Thicket is located. This is a piece of terrain where a lot of desperadoes like to hide and to kill the lawmen that come after them. It’s not a good place to visit, and everyone is going to have their work cut out for them when they get there. To put it bluntly, there’s going to be a lot of killing down the road, and you don’t want to be in the way of a stray bullet.
Few authors are capable of creating a story that’s filled with intense drama, action-packed suspense, violence and torture, and just plain good-old East Texas humor. As Joe might say, reading this novel is more fun than getting beat in the face with a stick by an angry circus monkey.
During the first half of The Thicket, Jack Parker and the reader aren’t sure if they like Shorty or many of the other characters that trail along with them. Joe Lansdale, however, has a unique way of explaining a character’s past that makes him or her both human and capable of so many good and bad things. Most human beings are a conglomerate of numerous emotions that are portrayed when least expected. Joe knows how to capture this and to turn his fictional characters into ones the readers care about.
Joe Lansdale also knows how to create an era that comes alive in all of its desolation and proclivity for sudden and violent death. He makes the West at the turn of the century seem like the land it really was, sparse and bare; yet, filled with men who wouldn’t hesitate to kill you at the drop of a hat. Joe is also an author who does his research and gets the ingredients of the time period right on every level, making the time and its inhabitants burst out with a life of their own, drawing the reader into the story as if he or she is living it right down to the grubby clothes and worn-out shoes.
The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale is one of the best novels of 2013. It’s certainly a humorous story because Joe is unable to write anything that doesn’t reflect his East Texas sense of comedy as it relates to the folly of mankind. Nobody can deny that reading a Lansdale novel is more entertaining than rolling down a hill with a bunch of armadillos. That’s a Lansdale saying by the way.
My only wish is that Joe would write a sequel to The Thicket. Though things were kind of wrapped up at the end, there’s still room for more stories about Shorty and Eustace. I, for one, want to read them. I should also point out that The Thicket would make a great western movie.