The Terror of East Texas Meets the Mainstream
You know Joe Lansdale, don't you? For umpty-some years now, the East Texas native (and longtime Nacogdoches resident) has been terrorizing the book world with radically weird, unsettlingly violent, and often indefinable short stories, novellas, and novels. And alternately entertaining the hell out of readers with his relatively straightforward Hap and Leonard crime/mystery series and scaring the living daylights out of them with the likes of 1999's Freezer Burn, which features a traveling sideshow whose main attraction is a body encased in a block of ice that might, or might not, be Jesus Christ. Combined with his work in comics, graphic novels, and such, he is not your typical writer.
There can be no doubt that Lansdale revels in his infamy -- some would cast him as the bad boy of Texas, or even American, letters, for heaven's sake. And no one doubts that he carefully nurtures a reputation for a willingness to go to, shall we say, the extreme boundaries of fiction. For example, of the more than 200 short stories he has written (by count of Golden Gryphon, publishers of the freshly minted High Cotton: Selected Stories of Joe R. Lansdale), he professes his "absolute favorite" to be "Night They Missed the Horror Show." The briefest possible summary of this twisted rendition of Last Picture Show gothic is: boys don't meet girls, boys don't go to drive-in, terminally bored boys drag dog carcass around town with car, boys meet violent and torturous end at the hands of murderous racists who hate to see a dog (dead or alive) treated that way.
But then, to confound and amaze everyone, along comes a sudden veering to one side in the form of The Bottoms, an East Texas ode to ramshackle rural childhood and the mysteries and ever-present complications of adulthood and small-town society. There will be inevitable comparisons to Harper Lee's masterwork, To Kill a Mockingbird. "I think I was aware of it," Lansdale admitted in a recent conversation, "in the sense that if you're writing about that era [the Thirties] that book's always going to go before you because it is a masterpiece and certainly is a favorite novel of mine -- maybe my favorite novel."
In fact, contrary to the persona that surrounds him, anyone who's acquainted with Lansdale, or has had the distinct pleasure of engaging him in conversation, knows him to be a marvelously friendly guy, courteous to a fault and witty beyond belief. He's firmly rooted by his family -- meaning the parents who raised him (The Bottoms is lovingly dedicated to them) as well as the wife and kids who keep him busy in Nacogdoches (High Cotton is dedicated to them). Lansdale's upbringing in East Texas in the Forties and Fifties has been a great source of inspiration and material for him, but he also digs back further to his parents and their formative experiences living through the Great Depression. Though his mother had an 11th-grade education and a great love for books, his father was a mechanic who, though apparently possessed of great strength of character, could not read or write until very late in life. "We were not particularly well-off, though we weren't any poorer than most of the people around us," Lansdale says. "My father always encouraged me to get an education, but he was also a guy that, when he was younger, had ridden the rails from town to town to box and wrestle for money."
For all their outlandish characters and plots, Lansdale's books and stories have always had a strong moral gravity. He is avowedly inclusive and determinedly anti-discriminatory -- a sensibility that was formed by a moral code that seems to have been passed to him by his father. "My father was just a hell of a guy. He had a real strong sense of honor, and he tried to pass that on to me. I like to think that I embrace that. He once told me a story, I believe he was riding the rails ... and he stopped at some town and they were lynching a black man and it left a big impression on him. Now my father was a man of his time, he was born in 1909, and he was very racist in many ways. But he didn't treat people differently because of their color. He treated everybody in the same way. I've seen him stop in the rain to help a black person fix their car back in the time when people would just whip by them, y'know? Back in the Fifties, when I was a child. But he told me the story of that lynching that stuck with me and it's one of the influences for this novel -- it was in the back of my mind all those years."
Now, anyone who has seen Joe Lansdale in action at a reading or a conference panel knows that he is a tremendous raconteur -- "The Champion Mojo Storyteller" as his Web site (www.joerlansdale.com) proclaims in mock-heroic fashion. He is glib in only the best meaning of the word. He attributes much of this, again, to the influence of his father and family. He says, "Storytelling wasn't unusual. I mean, the family would often sit out under a tree -- we'd gather my uncles and my grandmother and all and everybody'd pull up chairs or sit down in the tree and they would just talk about the old times and they would tell stories that other people'd told them. But my father was a great storyteller, and I think it influenced me tremendously. There's a book of mine called The Magic Wagon where I tried to capture his voice and I think that sometimes I'm successful."
Nearly all of Joe Lansdale's books and stories offer up some form of physical danger or hurt. And Lansdale is personally acquainted with the realities of fighting and pain through the rigors of rural, near-farm life as well as his 37 years of practicing the martial arts (he has even developed his own school of martial artistry called Shen Chuan). "My father was the first person to introduce me to self-defense and martial arts, which I've been doing all my life now. Let me tell about a situation -- some people might consider this kind of a crude situation, but nonetheless it's one that I remember though I was only about four years old. My parents had gotten me this puppy, and it had wandered across the creek and got into this guy's flower bed. And this guy came out of the house with me watching and grabbed it by the hind leg, hit it with a stick and threw it in the creek. And then my father came home and my mother obviously must have told him -- all that stuff runs together when you're a child -- but I remember seeing him go across the creek, knock on the guy's door, and knock him down, grab him by the ankles, and drag him face-down through the flower bed and threw him in the creek." And what happened to the dog, Joe? "He found the dog in the creek, which lived, and in fact died when I was 17 or 18 years old. He kept his word, y'know? He was a person ... he told you something you could count on it."
At this point in his career, with 17 novels, eight short story collections, two nonfiction books, and any number of other publications to his name, Lansdale could settle into a comfortable groove. He could simply maneuver his burgeoning popularity and undeniable skill into a lucrative industry. Instead, he chooses to write the kind of books he wants to write at the time he wants to write them. His Hap and Leonard series is far and away his most popular output, but rather than churn them out annually, he decided to release the oddball man-on-the-run caper Freezer Burn last year and now The Bottoms. It is obviously a bid for a different kind of recognition -- a more serious literary ambition than we've seen from Lansdale before. But he claims that it doesn't take any particular courage to move his career in such a dramatically different direction. "I've always done just pretty much what I wanted to do. I mean, I just did a thing for a small press called Zeppelins West that's nothing but an absolute, over-the-top farce, almost like an Abbott & Costello alternate universe Western. But I do believe that there is a conscious effort on my part to move more into the mainstream now that I can do it on my own terms. And by that I mean write the books I wanted and not try to write books for someone else. But I believe The Bottoms is the first of a number of books that I hope are going to be more mainstream."
By moving to the mainstream he gets to claim literary high ground that might not be entirely served by, say, the comic books or Batman novellas that are part and parcel of his career. But he is quick to point out that his feet are firmly planted in the realities of a working writer. "You know, I'm certainly not above chasing sales -- I'm not some kind of god or anything. But probably the reason I don't want to chase sales is I'm afraid I'd be successful. It's sort of like a dog chasing a car -- if you catch it then you gotta keep hanging on to it. And what I feel like, too, is that then I'll start writing books to please other people. I believe I've written The Bottoms on my own terms. It's a book that I truly and dearly wanted to write. And I have others that I think will reach more ... into the mainstream. Perhaps the subject matter is less controversial than race relations, though I wouldn't think in this day and time that race relations should be. But I believe that the language, the method of attack, is less controversial. And I would like that. I would like more people to read my work as long as it's work I want to write."
The value system he inherited from his parents, which he is trying to pass on to his own children, and which shapes so much of his writing, is easily summed up. "This whole thing about values can always be confused in what the Christian right calls morality and stuff like that. I don't want to be confused with that. Mine is much simpler -- you treat others like you want to be treated. And you keep your word. And," he says with a chuckle, "you pay your bills."
Joe Lansdale will be at BookPeople on Thursday, October 5, at 7pm.