|The Barnes & Noble Review|
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)
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).