The Edge of Dark Water
Author: Joe Lansdale
Publisher: Mulholland Books/ Little Brown & Company; Hatchet Book Group
Page Count: 304
There’s an old saying about singers, something about how the really good ones could entertain you by singing the phone book. Well, I believe that Joe R. Lansdale could probably write a damn good novel about a phone book, one that would make you laugh and cheer and cry and wish it would never end.
Edge of Dark Water will make you do all of those things; plus, its plot is way better than the phone book’s plot. In a nutshell, it’s about the time that 16-year-old Sue Ellen and her friends Jinx (a smart-aleck black girl in a time when being a smart-aleck black girl was a particularly dangerous thing) and Terry (who may or may not be gay) set out to take their friend May Lynn out of the East Texas sticks and to the promised land of Hollywood. Thing is, May Ellen is dead, nothing but ashes in a can. How she came to be dead, and how she came to be ashes in a can, is a story better left to Mr. Lansdale to tell. So are the parts about Sue Ellen’s mom, and the raft, and the lonely preacher they meet on the riverbank, and Skunk. Especially the parts about Skunk – Mr. Lansdale does an extraordinary job of building Skunk to mythic proportions over the first two-thirds of the novel, and then proving near the end that the reality of Skunk is even scarier and more dangerous than the myth.
Many reviewers have compared Lansdale’s work in this book to Mark Twain. It’s a comparison that works beyond the surface similarities of a raft and a river and young kids going on an adventure. It’s a good comparison because Lansdale, like Twain, is more than a writer – he’s a storyteller, the kind that hooks you right off the bat, teases you along at his leisure, and then pays it off emphatically. Lansdale’s eye for detail and ear for dialogue are second to none; after you’ve spent time with these characters you could take away the attributions and still know enough about them and their personalities and the particular rhythms of their words to know who is speaking at any given time.
Another strength of Lansdale’s is the way he is able to advocate tolerance and expose the stupidity that drives discrimination in its various forms without coming off as preachy. In the Depression-era setting of Edge of Dark Water, Jinx and Terry are easy targets for the bullies and bigots of the world, and there are few people willing to stick out their neck to intervene on their behalf. But Lansdale refuses to portray them as victims; if no one has their back, they’ll take care of themselves, and prove over and over again to be quite capable of doing so.
Edge of Dark Water is another in a long line of remarkable achievements from Joe R. Lansdale. As funny, original, and darkly entertaining as anything you’ll find on the shelves, it gets my highest recommendation.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror and crime fiction on his blog, October Country (http://theoctobercountry.wordpress.com), and is a regular contributor to FEARnet.com (http://www.fearnet.com) and Horror World (http://www.horrorworld.org). Stalk him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.