by Joe R. Lansdale
4 out of 5 stars
(I received a free copy of this from NetGalley.)
At the tail end of the cowboy days in East Texas, sixteen year old Jack Parker and his sister Lula have a helluva bad week. After their parents die in a smallpox epidemic, their grandfather is murdered by a gang of bank robbers who kidnap Lula. The only help that Jack can find is a grave digging black man with a drinking problem named Eustace and the midget bounty hunter Shorty. Along with a giant hog, they set out to rescue Lula. Jack tries to hold to his Christian beliefs that the gang should be caught and tried, and he is horrified at Shorty and Eustace’s willingness to kill and ignore common decency in the name of a greater good, namely their own.
As they meet more victims of the gang along the trail and see how cruel they truly are, Jack starts to realize that there’s no way to get Lula back without getting blood on his hands and that his traveling companions may have a better understanding of the world than he does. His young puritan ways are also tested when he meets Jimmie Sue, a hooker with a heart of gold who takes a liking to him.
There are elements of this story that will probably sound familiar to anyone who has read or seen one of the two film versions of True Grit with a young person venturing into a hostile wilderness with some salty frontier types, but Lansdale also adds some bizarre and violent turns that feel more like Django Unchained at times.
My favorite part was the character of Shorty. He may be the smallest member of the posse, but he’s the smartest and hell on wheels with a gun in his hand. He’s also a misanthrope who came by it honestly after a lifetime of dealing with people who treat him like a freak or a child, and he gets most of the best lines in the book.
It’s also got all the hallmarks of Joe Lansdale with a profane sense of humor that provides plenty of action but with a sense of responsibility about the damage done by all the violence. In fact, my one complaint about the novel is that it’s a little too Joe Lansdale.
If you’ve read his Hap & Leonard series, then a lot of this will seem somewhat familiar in that you’ve got some characters who while being ‘the good guys’ are perfectly content to dish out punishment if they feel it’s been earned while someone provides a softer hearted conscience that urges some compassion. In fact, this isn’t even the first Lansdale book to feature a midget involved in a vicious pistol whipping along with a strange wild animal bonding with people since he worked similar stuff into Rumble Tumble.
However, if the worst thing I can say about it is that it’s a typical Joe Lansdale story, then you know you’re still getting an entertaining tale.