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Spotlight on: The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale
Alternate Recommendation: The Two-Bear Mambo by Joe R. Lansdale

The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale Joe R. Lansdale, The Bottoms

Author Joe R. Lansdale is a cult figure due to his extreme way of looking at the world around him, specifically that corner known as East Texas. Not everyone can tolerate his depiction of the often unnecessarily violent behaviors of normal people (and not everyone gets to, as most of his output is released with small specialty presses). His ability to jump from one genre to another with apparent ease (he has written horror, mystery, suspense, and westerns, just to skim the surface) makes instant fans of his readers, who know that they will never get bored because he "always writes the same thing" like many authors. Novels like The Drive-In, along with his series starring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, and his short story collections High Cotton and Bumper Crop show his vast range of expertise, and his six Bram Stoker awards (given by the Horror Writers of America) are a testament to the admiration of his fellow writers.

A lot of Lansdale's work has a streak of dark humor running through it; you know when you read it you'll have a good time. The Bottoms has a lot of the same qualities of his other work, but is a more serious telling. Released by Mysterious Press, this is more of what people usually expect when they pick up a mystery novel, but still with the signature Lansdale stamp. Racism is a subject that never seems to get old, and it hangs heavily over the proceedings.

From his room in a rest home, old Harry Collins tells the story of a period of his childhood in the 1930s. While he and his sister Tom (short for Thomasina and tomboy) are out on an unpleasant task -- that of putting down their sick dog, Toby -- they come across a dead black woman, naked and tied to a tree with barbed wire. Their father, Jacob, is the local Constable, so he is saddled with the investigation of the apparent murder. Of course, the kids think it was done by the Goat Man, a mysterious half-goat, half-man creature (he has horns but walks on two legs) that lives in the woods.

Jacob's identification of the dead woman (who turns out to be a local prostitute) takes him into the black part of town, where he is confronted by townspeople, both black and white, who don't want him involved in "colored folks' business." Nobody cares about a dead black whore, they say, especially if she was killed by one of her own. Things heat up, however, when the body count increases; and when a white woman is killed, they are string up the first black man presented as a suspect. Jacob quickly learns that it's not easy to conduct a murder investigation when people are more interested in lynching than justice.

Meanwhile, Harry is doing some learning of his own, and The Bottoms is, primarily, his coming-of-age story. Just on the cusp of teenhood, Harry is growing up quickly, having been confronted with his first dead person along with the heavy race relations going on around him. Old Harry's voice comes through often to tell what was gleaned from some of these experiences. His views soon mirror his father's, who, even though his actions are sometimes flawed, believes in the equality of all people. In his characterizations, Lansdale makes sure his racists are despicable, even as he gives them other sensitive qualities like endowing one with the power of reason to see the error of his ways.

Although lacking the sense of extreme fun of his other novels, The Bottoms is still full of Lansdale's crackerjack wit, and his characters inevitably come out with creative metaphors for given situations, especially Harry's Grandma, who is chock full of folksy homilies. It is likely one of his best works and its receipt of the Edgar Allan Poe award is entirely justified. For beginners to the Lansdale canon, it is a way to get their feet wet before diving in, and for existing fans, it offers yet another angle of Lansdale's abilities. Writers with the talent of Lansdale are few and far between and this reviewer looks forward to each new offering.

Joe R. Lansdale, The Two-Bear Mambo

If you prefer the lighter side of Lansdale (which is still pretty damn dark), try the Hap and Leonard series (also from Mysterious Press), starting with Savage Season and continuing with Mucho Mojo. Hap Collins (who must be related to The Bottoms' Harry Collins in spirit if not in reality) and Leonard Pine just can't seem to keep themselves out of trouble. At the beginning of The Two-Bear Mambo, the third in the series, Leonard is yet again setting fire to the drug dealers' house next door. Their friend Lt. Hanson has to take them in just because, but when Hap's ex-girlfriend -- and Hanson's current squeeze -- Florida Grange goes missing, Hanson agrees to drop the charges if Hap and Leonard will go look for her in Grovetown, a burg in East Texas known for its violent Klan members, and where Florida was last seen.

The Two-Bear Mambo is so far the most unflinching of the series in its portrayal of Texas racism. Grovetown is even worse than I would have imagined and Lansdale does not look away for a moment. Leonard is the obvious target, but Hap's association with him brings him into the fray of violence as well. And as for Florida: well, no one as yet has admitted to even seeing her...

My white Southern guilt was intensified while reading The Two-Bear Mambo; the characters, their ideas, and their violence are all-too familiar from my upbringing. So much so that I could barely even bring myself to read it in public, afraid of what the people around me -- seeing the N-word on nearly every page -- would think I was reading (as if the barely euphemistic title weren't embarrassing enough).

But the trademark Lansdale humor abounds in sarcastic remarks and in the first-person narration of Hap -- whose difference from the author himself seems to be getting less and less. Lansdale has said that he is very comfortable with the voice of Hap and the easy-going prose makes that obvious. Despite my emotional reaction to the book, I look forward to continuing the adventures of Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. I'm glad they can't keep away from trouble; if they did, I'd be reading some other book that isn't nearly as fun.

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