Book: The Bottoms

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The Bottoms

Author: Joe R. Lansdale
Publisher: Mysterious Press

Today, the Sabine River runs as before, yet the bottoms have been drained. Long gone are the alligators, and the few birds that take to the air cast tiny shadows over concrete surfaces.

But way back then, during the thick of the Great Depression that squeezed Deep East Texas in its impoverishing grip, a boy could hear the crickets and the frogs in the star-studded southern night. And in this primordial time a killer stalked the land.

When young Harry Crane discovers the black woman’s body, mutilated and bound to a tree with barbed wire, he unwittingly unleashes a storm of uncontrolled fear, thinly buried racial animosities, and fearsomely escalating violence. Jacob Crane, Harry’s father and the town constable, struggles valiantly to see that proper justice gets done.


Joe Lansdale, author of several horror novels, Westerns, and some outrageous thrillers, is something of a cult writer. The Bottoms, which may be the breakout book that moves Lansdale beyond the genre category, is a resonant and moving novel. Though there is a mystery at its core, it is at heart a coming-of-age story, with a more literary bent than Lansdale usually demonstrates.

Harry, an elderly man, tells the story of a series of events that occurred in his 11th year, when the mutilated, murdered bodies of Negro prostitutes began turning up in the county where his father was the local constable. Harry and Tom, his younger sister, find the first one. Only their father, Jacob Crane, seems to care about finding justice for the victims, who are dismissed out of hand as unimportant by the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, which warns Jacob off any further investigations. Harry and Tom think they know who’s responsible: the Goat Man, a creature who’s said to lurk beneath the swinging bridge that crosses the Sabine River, where the first body was found. In fact, the Goat Man has something to do with the murders, and the secret of who he is and what he really did is the key to the unsolved slayings. But that takes second place to the artfully explicated character of Jacob and Harry’s changing relationship with him in the course of the loss of his boyish innocence. This is a masterfully told story and a very good read. —Jane Adams

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Much of The Bottoms—winner of the 2001 Edgar Award for Best Novel—will probably seem familiar to Lansdale’s longtime readers. It is based directly on his Stoker Award-winning novella, “Mad Dog Summer,” and it revisits the territory covered in his young adult novel, The Boar, which was likewise set in the hardscrabble world of Depression-era Texas. This time out, though, the scope of the narrative is considerably more expansive, and the story itself is more suspenseful and acutely observed. The result is a novel that functions successfully on a number of levels: as a detailed, authentic portrait of the Great Depression; as a moving but unsentimental coming-of-age story; and as a graphic, nontraditional example of the serial killer novel.

The narrator of The Bottoms is Harry Collins, an old man obsessively reflecting on certain key experiences of his childhood. In 1933, the year that forms the centerpiece of the narrative, Harry is 11 years old and living with his mother, father, and younger sister on a farm outside of Marvel Creek, Texas, near the Sabine River bottoms. Harry’s world changes forever when he discovers the corpse of a young black woman tied to a tree in the forest near his home. The woman, who is eventually identified as a local

prostitute, has been murdered, molested, and sexually mutilated. She is also, as Harry will soon discover, the first in a series of similar corpses, all of them the victims of a new, unprecedented sort of monster: a traveling serial killer.

From his privileged position as the son of constable (and farmer and part-time barber) Jacob Collins, Harry watches as the distinctly amateur investigation unfolds. As more bodies—not all of them “colored”—surface, the mood of the local residents darkens. Racial tensions—never far from the surface, even in the best of times—gradually kindle. When circumstantial evidence implicates an ancient, innocent black man named Mose, the Ku Klux Klan mobilizes, initiating a chilling, graphically described lynching that will occupy a permanent place in Harry Collins’s memories. With Mose dead and the threat to local white women presumably put to rest, the residents of Marvel Creek resume their normal lives, only to find that the actual killer remains at large and continues to threaten the safety and

stability of the town.

Lansdale uses this protracted murder investigation to open up a window on an insular, poverty-stricken, racially divided community. With humor, precision, and great narrative economy, he evokes the society of Marvel Creek in all its alternating tawdriness and nobility, offering us a varied, absolutely convincing portrait of a world that has receded into history. At the same time, he offers us a richly detailed re-creation of the vibrant, dangerous physical landscapes that were part of that world and have since been buried under the concrete and cement of the industrialized juggernaut of the late 20th century. In Lansdale’s hands, the gritty

realities of Depression-era Texas are as authentic—and memorable—as anything in recent American fiction.

The Bottoms reflects a large number of clearly discernible influences. Faulkner is a palpable presence here. So is Flannery O’Connor. So, too, is Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird informs this novel on almost every page. Recent influences—such as Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and the Stephen King’s of The Green Mile—seem equally apparent. In the end, though, Lansdale manages to absorb and contain these influences, and to create a novel that is uniquely, unmistakably his own. The Bottoms is the real, unadulterated thing: a moving, involving story told in a distinctive, authentic narrative voice. Don’t let it pass you by. (Bill Sheehan)

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