June 24, 2012

Come back to the raft ag'in, Sue Ellen ...

The American critic Leslie Fiedler wrote an essay called 'Come back to the raft ag'in, Huck Honey!', in which he suggested that much classic American literature contained a submerged theme of homoeroticism. He used Huckleberry Finn as an example of this kind of book, and Joe R. Lansdale's Edge of Dark Water seems to merge both of these texts, so that a trip by raft down river in a southern state of America fuses emerging sexuality, racial issues and death ... all wrapped around the story of a crime of passion.
Lansdale has a varied reach as an author, having written award-winning horror and science-fiction stories and, my favourite, a series of novels about the crime-busting deadbeats, Leonard Pine (black, gay) and Hap Collins (white, straight, feckless). These books are funny, fast-paced, hard to predict and lots of fun. In Edge of Dark Water Lansdale is trying for something different - it's a serious book but it's comic and frightening by turns.

As in Huckleberry Finn, the story is told by an adolescent who has been exposed to more of the world's doings than might have been good for him/her. In Edge of Dark Water our narrator is Sue Ellen, a sixteen-year-old living some time in the 1930s in poverty-stricken east Texas. She has a black girl friend, Jinx, and a white boy friend, Terry, who she suspects is a 'sissy'. The incident that kicks off the story of the book is the discovery in the Sabine, the local river, of the body of their mutual friend, May Lynn, the local beauty. As a result of trying to find out what happened to May Lynn, the young friends also discover a stash of stolen money, and they subsequently decide to cremate May Lynn and take her ashes to Hollywood, because she had set her mind on becoming a star. The money will help them fund the trip.

They begin their trip downriver on a raft, escaping from their various parents but, more importantly, hoping to find their true selves beyond the limits of their lives so far. Sue Ellen's escape is complicated by the fact that her mother - who has been a hop-head for a while, controlled by her husband - finds a way to escape with them. Another complication is that a bizarre half-savage called Skunk is set on their trail - a semi-mythical murderer who is rumoured to kill for money and chop people's hands off for keepsakes.

The structure of the book is a typical one for American literature ever since Huck Finn 'lit out for the territory.' It's a structure that shows people escaping some kind of civilization in pursuit of something different, and having to find resources within themselves to cope with what the outside world has to offer. The traveling group comes across the forces of law and order, in the shape of a corrupt cop who chases them to take the money back (for himself, not for the bank it came from); they meet with religion in the guise of a forlorn preacher who forswears his God because of the temptation offered by Sue Ellen's beautiful mother; and they meet the dead hand of stasis (and possibly the hint of slavery), in the form of an old woman who forces the group at the point of a gun to clean her house.

Not to forget Skunk, whose dread arrival forces the conclusion of the story.

As in Huckleberry Finn, the pressure behind the story is fear of capture, or death. But while the story unfolds the diverse group comes to terms with each other and find their strength as individuals - Sue Ellen's mother kicks her dope habit, Terry reveals to Sue Ellen that yes, he is gay. And Sue Ellen learns to give into her feelings and to understand other people's humanity.

Also reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn is the suppleness and variety of the narrator's voice. Sue Ellen tells us the story in the same manner as Huck, as if she were talking to us directly:
I’d had me a taste of liquor once, and I didn’t like it. I can say the same for chewing tobacco and cigarettes and anything that’s got lettuce in it.
Uncle Gene was fat as a hog, but without the personality. Still, he was a big man in height and had broad shoulders and arms about the size of a horse’s neck. Daddy didn’t even look kin to him. He was a skinny peckerwood with a potbelly, and if you ever saw him without a cap it was cause it had rotted off his head. He and Uncle Gene had about eighteen teeth between them, and Daddy had most of them. Mama said it was because they didn’t brush their teeth enough and they chewed tobacco. There were times when I looked at their sunken faces and was reminded of an old pumpkin rotting in the field. I know it’s a sad thing to be so repulsed by your own kin, but there you have it, straight out and in the open.
This voice is personal, direct and extremely involving. Not once do you see the ghostly hand of the male, older writer in the background. It's a great feat of ventriloquism from Lansdale. He manages to tell the story from the perspective of a young girl but with a great deal of variety and energy in the telling, often using phrases or new combinations of words to create spontaneity:
Anyway, Daddy had these tow sacks—about ten of them—and he and Uncle Gene had them full of green walnuts and some rocks to heavy them up...
He made toward the fire, his belly bouncing before him like a dog leaping up to greet him. 
Jinx was my age. She had her hair tied in pigtails that stood out from her head like plaited ropes of wire. She had a sweet face, but her eyes seemed older, like she was someone’s ancient grandma stuffed inside a kid. 
In terms of the plotting, Lansdale sets up the tale as a combination of a quest - to go to a far land in order to achieve a goal; i.e. scatter May Lynn's ashes - and a chase: to escape the awful Skunk. The thriller writer in Lansdale knows full well that we will keep reading to find out whether Skunk catches up with the group, and what he'll do when he finds them. To heighten our tension, there's a scene not long after the group have started downriver that describes the after-effects of Skunk dealing with two others who are also chasing them:
But that broken neck wasn’t all that was horrible about his body. There was something else. His hands was cut off at the wrist from jagged strikes. It was the same for Constable Sy, who had been bound to the table with wraps of rope. The lantern had been placed by his head so whoever had done him in would have a close light to work by. The jar with the buttermilk was empty, and the jar itself had bloody fingerprints on it. Whoever had done this had paused in his work to refresh himself.
The awfulness of this scene is deliberate - it instills in us a genuine fear of what Skunk might do if he catches them. Thereafter, whatever happens to the group - good or bad - as they meet new people on the river, we're always waiting for the moment that Skunk arrives.

And of course this gives Lansdale permission to explore the other themes he's interested in - sexuality, adolescence, the yearning for a new life. We'll stay with the diversions (sometimes reminiscent of the Duke and the King story in Huckleberry Finn) because we want to know how they escape. The voyage downriver is an actual journey with its own hazards, but it's also a metaphor that stresses the growth-journey embarked on by the members of the group. Interestingly, it ends badly for those who represent social institutions - law, religion, family. But those who rely on themselves are, within limits, shown to be resourceful and imaginative. Of course this plays into the great mythos of American culture - that self-actualisation comes about through self-reliance; social forces are only repressive and deadening. In Huck's time he had to light out for the territory in order to continue to be himself. In Sue Ellen's period, California and Hollywood offer a different kind of escapist dream.

In the end it comes down to Sue Ellen to rescue the group, as we always knew it would. Her grasp of reality is reflected in the strength and subtlety of her language. Her ability to see things as they really are, and describe them, helps us to appreciate that the values she espouses - friendship, acceptance, flexibility, morality - are important, and are the values that will rescue any group of troubled, wounded and yearning individuals.

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