Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale
Mulholland Books, 2012, Hardcover, $25.99, 291pps
Review by Wayne C. Rogers
Okay, this is what happened with Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale.
I’d been waiting for several months to get this new novel by Hisownself and read it. I knew that once I got a couple of pages into the story, I wouldn’t put the sucker down, even if my life depended on it. As time would have it, the day after I got the book in the mail, I got hit with a number of writing projects that needed to be done ASAP.
A magazine sent me back a story they’d purchased so I could correct the galley proofs. Another magazine was interested in a story I’d sent them, but only if I could cut a thousand words from it. The story was 1,300 words above their limit, but they liked it and wanted to buy it, if I could do the necessary cut. A publisher was suddenly interested in an old erotic novel I'd written over a decade ago. If I owned the rights to it, they were willing to publish it after a quick polish on my part.
Needless to say, I stopped reading and started writing like a tornado the size of Texas was on my ass. The only reading I did was during my lunch break at work. I got both short stories completed, and then quickly started the rewrite of my old novel.
Something, however, happened yesterday while I was at work (Thursday). When I was reading Edge of Dark Water in the employee lunch room, I got to the point in the story when Skunk (the most evil villain I’ve ever read about) first attacks the kids on the Sabine River. I knew then I was going to finish this novel come hell or high water. You see the book was pretty good up until that particular scene. Then, it suddenly became GREAT, and I wasn’t going to wait another day to find out what happened to everybody. I needed to know who had bought the farm and who was still kicking. I put the rewrite on hold and then dug in last night for the long haul so I could finish Joe’s book.
The problem is I’m 61, and the pain medication I’m on puts me to sleep after a few hours. So, I managed to read seventy pages before I conked out on the couch and started snoring so loud the neighbors were soon banging on the wall, yelling for me to turn the television down.
I took the novel to work with me today (Friday) so I could squeeze in some fast reads. I still didn’t have enough time to finish it.
This was worse than getting stuck in the eye with a sharp pencil.
I got home, answered my e-mails, and then got comfortable on the couch again to read. Nothing was going to stand in my way this time. I was ready to take on King Kong if necessary to finish this fabulous story of friendship, love, hate, murder, coming of age, racial prejudice, parenting, pure evil in the meanest sense of the word, and anything else Joe could think to include in the story. Then, a pizza man knocked on the door, wanting to know if I was interested in buying a large pepperoni pizza for six bucks. I told him to buzz off before my friends, Hap and Leonard, showed up and stuck that pizza where the sun don't shine. Of course, truth be told, I didn’t have six dollars, or else I would’ve bought one to eat while I was reading.
Well, I finished the book and here’s the review.
Joe said he thought Edge of Dark Water was probably his best novel to date. I can’t honestly say if it is or isn’t. You see, I’m prejudiced. I’ve long held The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale as the best novel I’ve ever read. It's certainly Joe’s #1 book to date. There were just so many things in the novel that spoke to my heart as a human being that I didn’t think it could ever be replaced. The thing is, however, Edge of Dark Water is so good that it’s trying to edge right up against The Bottoms like a horny, drunk husband late at night and remove it from its perch at the top of the list.
What’s the Edge of Dark Water about?
Joe Hill (author of Horns and The Heart-Shaped Box) called it a cross between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Deliverance. He wasn’t far wrong on that description.
When Mae Lyn, the prettiest girl in the county, is found dead in the Sabine River with a Singer sewing machine tied around her ankles, her three closest friends—maybe her only friends—decide to dig up her body, burn it, and take the ashes to Hollywood. This is where Mae Lyn always dreamed of going, hoping she could become famous.
Her friends—Sue Ellen, Jinx and Terry—all have their different personalities. Sue Ellen, though pretty, is basically a tomboy. Jinx is black and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, even if it gets her into trouble. Remember, this is taking place during the Great Depression. Terry is a handsome young fellow, but everybody considers him to be a sissy. In the South, during the Depression, being a sissy is considered worse than being black. Still, these kids love each other as close friends usually do, even if they sometimes get on each other’s nerves.
Now, if each of these kids came from a great, loving home or had something to look forward to in their life, the idea of taking Mae Lyn’s ashes to California wouldn’t have grown wings and taken flight so quickly. All of them have little reason to stay and everything to gain by heading out west. To add to the situation, the three kids discover a cache of hidden money stolen from a bank by Mae Lyn’s dead brother. It’s only a thousand dollars, but a lot of people would kill you for a lot less during the Depression.
Stealing a raft, the kids make their way down the river, but with folks after them for the money. No one really cares about the children, but the money is something else entirely. The Shunk, a merciless killer and a legend, is hired to track the kids down and bring back the money. The thing is Shunk loves to kill in the most hideous ways. He always chops the hands off of his victims and keeps them as souvenirs around his neck. The kids don’t believe in him at first, but they soon will.
While the kids make their way down the river to the nearest town, they encounter all sorts of adventures. It doesn’t hurt that they have an unexpected travelling companion with them. It proves to be both a blessing and a curse at the same time.
There’s also the matter of who murdered Mae Lyn.
That question isn’t stared at or mulled over much on the river trip. But when the killer is finally revealed, I think you’ll be just as surprised as I was. It’s not easy to surprise me any more, but Joe Lansdale still has that solid punch to the gut that can knock the wind out of you.
As I stated earlier, Edge of Dark Water covers many themes and does them poignantly so the reader isn’t beaten over the head with each one like a bongo drum (I've been wanting to use that phrase from one of Joe's books for a over a year). The author portrays life as it was during the thirties and forties. In some ways, much hasn’t changed. People are still people with their good points and their bad ones. Seldom is anything black or white, but rather shades of grey because human beings are complex creatures. Joe understands this and is able to give the reader an underlying view of what makes people tick. This is a hard job for any writer, but Joe manages to do it in spades.
This is also pure storytelling at its best. Not every writer can tell a good yarn. Joe Lansdale is a master at it. He knows how to weave a good, heart-wrenching tale, creating fully developed characters in such a way that you either love them or hate them, or maybe both at the same time. Heck, you might not even know which emotion is kicking in or being tugged on. I guarantee, however, you’ll get a good look at the dark side of man few other authors are able to tap into. This writer creates a picture of evil as if he’s gone up against it during his lifetime and barely survived.
Last, allow me to add that Joe Lansdale is an author who knows how to deliver on his promises. What do I mean by that? Whenever you buy a novel, the author is promising that you’ll get your money’s worth from the book. Not every author is able to keep that particular promise, but Joe always does. This is why I always look forward to a new book by him. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Go out and get yourself a copy of Edge of Dark Water. After you finish reading it, you’ll want to put it on the bookshelf beside Joe R. Lansdale’s other great novels, The Bottoms, A Fine Dark Line, Sunset and Sawdust, and the Hap/Leonard series. This is one of the top writers in the world today and if you haven't read his fiction, then shame on you. Highly recommended!