Upon its independent debut in the 1980s, the Black Lizard imprint earned distinction by reprinting older classics of the crime fiction genre: Thompson, Goodis, Willeford. Since its acquisition by Random House as part of the Vintage line, Black Lizard has spotlighted more recent books by living authors of no lesser stature, such as Jonathan Lethem and Nicola Griffith. In bringing us Joe Lansdale’s quietly brutal, harshly elegaic novel The Bottoms, originally issued in the far-off year of 2000, the current editors have once again established that the noir lineage continues to flourish in the twenty-first century.
The productive Lansdale wears many hats, generating work in the science fiction and horror genres, as well as mystery and crime fiction. But whatever he turns his hand to, he’s pure Texas, a proud native of that state who employs the region’s distinctive culture and tongue, history and worldview in his narratives. Here, harking back a bit to classic Southern novels involving juvenile rites of passage such as The Yearling and To Kill a Mockingbird, Lansdale offers a Depression-era adventure in mortality undergone by twelve-year-old Harry Collins, told in the boy’s own distinctive voice, full of ripe Southernisms (“her breath sweet as a hot peach pie”) yet purely uncluttered and natural.
Harry, the bright, personable, empathetic son of a poor farmer, has the misfortune to find a dead black woman floating in the local river, thereby launching himself upon a harrowing education in the decadence and deceit—and nobility and courage—of adults. As Harry’s father, also part-time constable, strives to solve what turns out to be a series of fetishistic murders, Harry learns about racism and broad-mindedness, duty and privilege, affection, bitterness and hatred.
Lansdale always has time for a subplot—the romantic embers between Harry’s mother and an old suitor, for instance—or a tall tale—a man gets picked up and carried by a twister, living to regale his babershop companions with the account—and the book possesses a langorous feel extending over its months of activity, despite the omnipresent suspense connected with the murders. It’s something like Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine conflated with a James Ellroy thriller, a mix of bildungsroman and police procedural, seasoned with the authentic but unrealized supernatural beliefs of the natives.
Framed as the memoir of an elderly, bed-bound Harry, the tale also wears a patina of nostalgia and the wistful re-creation of a lost past. At the beginning of Part Two, ancient Harry muses on the sad and irreversible transformation of the salient geographical feature of his youth, central to the crimes. “The beautiful woods are all gone now, cut down, cemented over with car lots and filling stations, homes and satellite dishes…. All the wildlife you see is desperate…. What was once the bottoms is hot sunlight on cement and no mystery.” Life is safer, but less essential; cleaner, but less primal; structured, but less interesting; fairer, but less kind. Bearing witness to humanity’s progress, balancing our gains and losses, is the core mission of this wise book.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.