Underground Reading: A Fine Dark Line by Joe R. Lansdale
Thursday, November 24, 2011
Joe R. Lansdale's extensive body of work ranges from steampunk mayhem to East Texas noir, with a few stops along the way for the unclassifiable and truly bizarre. His Hap Collins and Leonard Pine stories are some of my favourite mystery novels - the perfect balance of character, setting and detection. His more pulpy work - for example the Drive-In series or his infamous "The God of the Razor" - is noteworthy in a completely different way, a combination of splatterpunk horror and lingering weird (little w) imagery, William S. Burroughs landscapes populated by Richard Laymon characters.
Mr. Lansdale also exercises himself by walking along a completely different spectrum, with his coming of age and historical fiction set in his beloved Texas. Sunset and Sawdust (2004), The Bottoms (nominated for some award or another) (2000), The Boar (1998) and, perhaps best of all, A Fine Dark Line (2002).
A Fine Dark Line is ostensibly a mystery. Stanley Mitchell is a naive 13 year old in the mid-sized town of Dumont, Texas, 1958. While playing the woods behind his house, he finds a half-buried box of old letters - the only surviving artefact of a burned down mansion from a generation before. The letters tell the story of two young women, both, Stanley learns, dead under mysterious circumstances.
Stanley's no detective - he's a lonely, fairly intelligent kid living in a small town on the brink of change. He starts the book distraught that he only learned Santa Claus was a lie the previous year (and has the good grace to realise how embarrassing that is for a 12 year old). He loves his comic books, Roy Rodgers cowboy boots and his dumb-but-loyal dog, Nub.
The mystery, such as it is, provides the central structure to his coming of age story. The forgotten murders provide Stanley an excuse to explore Dumont from top to bottom - from the glossy spires of the town's upper class to the ungainly sprawl of the pre-Civil Rights era African American neighborhood. Mr. Lansdale is excellent at depicting both extremes and populating his Texas town with a cast of fascinating characters. Stanley's eyes open a little more with each encounter, and his discomfort is alternately disconcerting and heart-warming. His old sister explains to him "the birds and the bees", but also the harsh realities of what its like to be a 16 year old girl in 1958. The family's elderly handyman, Buster Smith, teaches Stanley about the rudiments of detection - but also the unfortunate truths of high-functioning alcoholism and the bitter fruits of racism.
By the end of A Fine Dark Line, Stanley's a very different person - exposed to sex, race, violence, classism and, eventually, death. The reader's concern isn't whether he'll find the murderer, but what sort of man Stanley will be by the close of the book. With his father, his mother and his friends, he's surrounded by examples of good people struggling to make do - and he's also constantly exposed to the 'success stories' of reprehensible people. Stanley learns that the values expressed in his comic books might not be those shared by the real world.
And Stanley is a nice kid - that's easily seen in the behavior of those around him. But there's an edge to it, especially with his African-American friends like Buster and Rosy Mae. They see Buster as a child, innocent and good-willed. But they also know that, at any moment, he could be absorbed into the social mainstream and turn against them. Stanley's lucky (perhaps anachronistically so) to have fairly liberal role models in his mother and father. But even so, most of the book's resolution involves people - friends and family both - learning to let their guard down and trust one another. (Also a serial killer with a scythe, but that's to be expected.)
A recurring theme throughout Mr. Lansdale's books in every genre, is the difference between justice and the law. Through Stanley, the reader learns how, in his small town, the two are not necessarily intertwined. Not merely with the unsolved murders, but also with the treatment of many of Stanley's friends. Similarly, the tension throughout A Fine Dark Line has nothing to do with the crimes, but everything to do with the choices that Stanley has to make.
Although I'm painting A Fine Dark Line to sound a bit like an Afterschool Special, the closest comparison is more Stand By Me. The book perfectly captures the eye-opening awkwardness of that One Magical Transitional Summer, underpinned with the awareness that who Stanley becomes now will be him for the rest of his life. (This is all a fairly inaccurate media/literary construct of adolescence that everyone now accepts as given for coming of age stories, but that's a topic for another day.)
Dumont, Texas, 1958 is also young, naive and on the verge of growing up. And if Mr. Lansdale is clear about what happens with Stanley, he leaves it to the reader to decide what kind of adult that Dumont becomes.
By Jared (@pornokitsch) who would dearly love to go drinking with Hap and Leonard.