Book Reviews

Neal Barrett Jr.
Neal Barrett Jr.


by Neal Barrett Jr.

Subterranean Press, 205 pp., $40 (signed/limited ed.)

More and more I'm becoming convinced that there are actually two Texases (Texi?), existing side by side in one of those parallel-universe scenarios so popular with writers who want to take a stab at what the Americas would be like these days had Germany beat out the allies in WWII. There's our Texas, the real one, the one whose boundaries are marked by such well-defined lines as Oklahoma and Louisiana, the one where the writers and their readers live; and then there's our Texas' evil twin, a sad, sorry, sordid state of affairs chronicled by native scribes like Nacogdoches' Joe R. Lansdale and Austin's Neal Barrett Jr. That other Texas, the "Lone Scar State" I like to call it, seethes with shady characters with snaggletoothed grins, pre-gnawed nails, sloping unibrows, riotously ill-conceived get-rich-quick schemes, and itchy, hair-trigger tempers that often go off without much notice and end up sending all scurrying for cover. That's the State of things in Barrett's newest slice of bad-vibey Texana, where Jack, late of Huntsville State Pen and a frequent visitor to next-door-to-hell establishment Piggs: the sort of grimy topless bar that showcases the dubious charms of girls with names like Minnie Mouth, Wilda Hare, and -- Jack's true love, kinda sorta -- Gloria Mundi. Piggs, as well as Jack's employer, Wan Lee's Chinese, are owned by small-time mobster Cecil R. Dupree, the big shot in a small town called Mexican Wells, who, between running the dog end of things with hulking toadies Cat Eye, Rhino, and Grape, and making life just this side of abysmal for Jack, manages to also fall for the charms of Ms. Mundi (who, it should be noted, lives in her late father's down-at-the-heels "Battle of Britun" theme park, inside a German JU 52 Junkers airplane, itself nestled snugly in the crotch of a tree).

Between Jack and Cecil's competing love/lust for the girl and a deuce of bodies that crop up midway through Barrett's slim volume, there's plenty of sublime Texan weirdness and pointy-headed intrigue. Piggs is a love story about people who think with just about every other body part other than their heads. The joy of Barrett's writing is, as in past books like the collection Perpetuity Blues and the short novel Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus, in his ability to make readers care for these sorry semi-humans, against all odds, warts and scabs and all. Veering often from ludicrous hickoid humor to trenchant (semi-trenchant, anyway) observations on the inhuman condition, the fine folks of Piggs topless bar are kith and kin to Joe R. Lansdale's celebrated Hap and Leonard novels. Come to think of it, somebody ought to lock these two Texans in a small room together alongside an Underwood and see what scoots under the door come daybreak. Hell, I'd read it.

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