Edge of Dark Water (2012) is the latest mystery from Joe R. Lansdale, adding to the body of work known as his "East Texas noir". Like many of its predecessors, Edge of Dark Water is more a coming of age story than a detective novel.
Sue Ellen is poor, ill-educated and generally downtrodden. She lives with her mother, who is addicted to a patent medicine cure all that's largely laudanum, and her father, who has a half-dozen teeth and roving hands. Sue Ellen is clever and, for the most part, fearless. She has no problems about going to bed with a trusty 2x4 clutched in her hand and knows the warning signs for when her father and his drunk friends want to lay down a beating on someone.
The only bright spots in Sue Ellen's life are her friends. Jinx has a good family but is African-American. Her situation is the reverse of Sue Ellen: safe at home, but terrified every time she steps out of her front door. Like Sue Ellen, she's adapted to have thick skin, the (reckless) confidence to speak her mind and an appreciation of solid chunk of wood.
Terry, the girls' other friend, brings his own issues into the mix. He's what passes for middle class in this swampy hamlet, but his mother's new husband is a loathsome creature with strict ideas of what it means to be a capital-m-Man. Terry's education has come to a rough halt and, perhaps more tellingly, the whole town is starting to cotton on to the fact that he's not interested in the opposite sex.
Edges of Dark Water begins with Sue Ellen and Terry discovering the body of one of the other girls their age: May Lynn. May Lynn was beautiful and spirited, with the impossible dream of getting to Hollywood. Her untimely death (she was found wired to a sewing machine at the bottom of a lake) shocks the teenagers out of their daily routine of survival.
The kids sublimate their grief by making a mad pact to take May Lynn's ashes to Hollywood. Sue Ellen expects her friends to forget it and move on, but then a series of family revelations (and the general reinforcement of how awful their lives are) galvanizes her into action. Sue Ellen, Jinx, Terry and Sue Ellen's slightly-fried mother pile onto an old raft and push themselves down the Sabine River. They're aiming for Hollywood, but will settle for "away".
Once on the river, Edge of Dark Water begins to play out an homage to Mark Twain. They meet one madcap character after another: a mysteriously well-meaning preacher, a poisonous old lady and a ridiculous small town sheriff with delusions of grandeur. Like Huckleberry Finn, Sue Ellen enters each of these encounters with an open mind, explores their individual philosophies and moves on, slightly wiser for the experience. Readers familiar with Mr. Lansdale's work will see through the ostensibly ambling plot of Edge of Dark Water. Although the characters are moving at a snail's pace, absolutely no word is wasted.
As with A Fine Dark Line, Mr. Lansdale deserves congratulation for his portrayal of young adults. The trend is to portray the coming of age process as a punctuated equilibrium, with children making flying leaps into adulthood at the close of each life-altering chapter. In Edge of Dark Water, Mr. Lansdale depicts adolescence into the murky soup that it really is - in which children can be both wise and foolish, mature and superstitious. They're aware that they can be better and are frustrated that they still aren't there yet. If the author takes any liberties with his teenage heroes, they are in the dialogue, where neither Jinx nor Sue Ellen are ever short on snappy comebacks.
The death of May Lynn gets very short shrift, intentionally so. Although her murder is the catalyst to get the protagonists on the road, there's never any overt desire to find her killer. In the book's setting, life is cheap. Accidents are commonplace and poisonous snakes abound. All wounds are vicious, due to the constant dirt, lack of medical training and limited hygiene. Adulthood means growing decrepit and losing teeth (and limbs). The sole example of someone truly elderly is a vicious monster; someone that, as is noted by everyone around her, "should've passed a long time ago". Rural East Texas of 1930s does not seem far removed from the Dark Ages.
The seeming nonchalance surrounding May Lynn's death reinforces the same theme. There's simply no point in wasting the dwindling days of youth in a Quixotic quest for justice. Another death is just another death, and, as May Lynn's demise proves, even the perfect physical specimen can be stricken down at any moment. The book's climactic action scene has a similarly random element, which I won't spoil here.
But it isn't all bleak. The ephemerality of life is what prompts Sue Ellen and her friends to make the most of their own situation. To them, even if May Lynn goes unavenged, their own dreams still have a (slim) chance.
Sue Ellen's rare combination of cynicism and empathy is what keeps the group grounded, making sure that they're not blinded by desperation and ambition. Jinx frequently gives in to her temper and Terry is absorbed wholly in his own problems. Sue Ellen is the one that keeps the group on the (relatively) straight and narrow, and makes sure that no one is left behind. If the general goal of their quest is to find "something more", Sue Ellen is tasked with making sure that they don't leave too much of themselves behind. This, more than anything else, is the central quest in Edge of Dark Water.
Although readers looking for a detective thriller may be confused, the core of this book - the deceptively sedate travel down the Sabine River - is an exceptional work of Americana. Mr. Lansdale has long been one of the great atmospheric writers, especially on his home turf of Texas, but Edge of Dark Water showcases his ability to craft realistic and poignant young protagonists as well.
Edge of Dark Water is out this March from Mulholland Books.
By Jared (@pornokitsch) who is a little scared of Texas