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The Bottoms Paperback – December 7, 2010
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Joe Lansdale, author of several horror novels, Westerns, and some outrageous thrillers, is something of a cult writer. The Bottoms, which may be the breakout book that moves Lansdale beyond the genre category, is a resonant and moving novel. Though there is a mystery at its core, it is at heart a coming-of-age story, with a more literary bent than Lansdale usually demonstrates.
Harry, an elderly man, tells the story of a series of events that occurred in his 11th year, when the mutilated, murdered bodies of Negro prostitutes began turning up in the county where his father was the local constable. Harry and Tom, his younger sister, find the first one. Only their father, Jacob Crane, seems to care about finding justice for the victims, who are dismissed out of hand as unimportant by the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, which warns Jacob off any further investigations. Harry and Tom think they know who's responsible: the Goat Man, a creature who's said to lurk beneath the swinging bridge that crosses the Sabine River, where the first body was found. In fact, the Goat Man has something to do with the murders, and the secret of who he is and what he really did is the key to the unsolved slayings. But that takes second place to the artfully explicated character of Jacob and Harry's changing relationship with him in the course of the loss of his boyish innocence. This is a masterfully told story and a very good read. --Jane Adams --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
In his latest suspense thriller, prolific yarn-spinner Lansdale, best known for his offbeat series featuring the mismatched East Texas Sherlocks Hap Collins and Leonard Pine (Bad Chili), presents a different voice in a coming-of-age story set in the early years of the Great Depression. Lansdale's 80-something protagonist, Harry Crane, looks back to the day in 1933 when he was 13 and, with his nine-year-old sister, Tom (Thomasina), he found the mutilated corpse of a black prostitute bound to a tree with barbed wire near their home along the hardscrabble bottomlands of the Sabine River. The discovery presents their father, Jacob CraneAa farmer and barber eking out a living as the town constableAwith a nightmarish investigation. News travels slowly in the days before television, but Jacob learns from the black doctor who performs the makeshift autopsy that two other mutilated bodies have been found over the last 18 months. Because the victims are black and "harlots," no one in the county much cares. But when the body of a white prostitute is discovered, a rabid mob lynches MosesAa black man who has been something of a surrogate father to JacobAdespite Jacob and Harry's heroic efforts to save him. Predictably, another body is soon discovered. Lansdale is best when recreating the East Texas dialogue and setting. Readers will not have to work hard to unearth comparisons to characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, but gruesome details of the murders keep the novel from being labeled a period piece. Folksy and bittersweet, though rather rough-hewn and uneven, Lansdale's novel treats themes still sadly pertinent today. (Aug.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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That time & place is 1933 East Texas. Way East Texas, on the border with Louisiana and not that far from the Gulf. The Dust Bowl is shaping North/West Texas*, but in East Texas it's wetter. But there is still the 3 year-old Great Depression. On the other hand, times were never flush in The Bottoms, the lands close to the lazy Sabine River.
The narrator is Harry Collins, now an old man confined to a wheel chair. But the tale he tells is of his 1933 12 year-old self. And how he tells it! Jim Crow is like a character in "The Bottoms". Always there. Menacing. Every action Harry's father, the part-time constable, takes has to be weighed with Jim Crow's reaction in mind, as if the institutional racism is a single powerful person.
When Harry and his sister Tom(asina) find the body of a black woman trussed in barbed wire and stashed at the river's edge as if it were a dessert in a larder, their father has to look into it. He can't take the body to the local doctor/coroner, because even if the doctor was inclined to work on a black, he would lose his white clientele. So the body is carted to a nearby settlement mostly black, where a black doctor performs the post mortem in an ice house. As it turns out, the local preacher can identify the woman, too. All this effort gets Constable Collins only more questions and a warning from the sheriff.
Then there's another body, similarly tortured, and Harry's father has the novel notion that even if a serial killer only goes after blacks, it should be investigated, And this gets Constable Collins a visit from the Klan. But don't get me wrong, Harry's father, even when seen through the eyes of his 12 year-old son, is not Rambo or even the Lone Ranger. He is a decent man trying to do his decent best.
And he and his wife are raising their kids to be the same way. I would say that as I was reading this book, my feeling was one of expectant fear, simmering. Here's Harry about to make a gruesome discovery: "I felt something in the air I can't explain. Maybe it was just the car that had set me on edge, but it was as if the night were filled with needles and the cool points of them were sticking in my skin." That's how I felt while reading "The Bottoms".
As a mystery, the plotting of "The Bottoms" is pretty good. You are given clues but they are very subtle - I certainly didn't catch on. My personal taste runs to murderers who are driven by something other than madness, but my immersion in the world of Harry Collins was so complete that I can highly recommend it as a mystery and as a mystery approaching literature.
Given it's time and place, the language used is realistic. Though not gratuitous, the n-word is used in casual conversation.
If you're interested (I had to look it up) the Sabine River is pronounced seh bin.
* I do want to note that Lansdale only brings up the Dustbowl and the Depression as background. And good thing. The story takes place in 1933, so the Depression was very real, though hardly getting started. But the first wave of the Dust Bowl's three droughts didn't happen until 1934. This nitpicking fact did not affect my enjoyment of this fascinating novel.
I'm going to be reading more of Lansdale's work, no question!