Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, October 20, 2011


All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky by Joe R. Lansdale

Okay, so it's not all the earth thrown into the sky, but it's most of Oklahoma plus a goodly part of Texas, and Kansas and Nebraska.

Joe Lansdale's recent novel takes place during the Dust Bowl days of the Depression.  The dust has been blowing around Jack Catcher's Oklahoma home for so long that he can tell where the dust is coming from just by its color:  red dust is from Oklahoma, white dust comes up from Texas, while darker dust journeys down from Kansas or (perhaps) Nebraska.  Wherever it comes from, there's too much of it, killing people and animals and farms.  When the story opens, it has just killed young Jack's mother from the "dirty pneumonia".  His father, weakened by the cumulative effects of the dust itself and of its consequences, finds he cannot take any more and hangs himself, leaving a note apologizing to his son.

     With the dust storms still blowing, Jack has to bury his parents and to try to figure out what to do afterwards.  In the distance, he sees two figures slogging through the dust toward him.  It's Jane Lewis, a girl about his age, and her little brother Tony.  Their father had just died when a tractor turned over on him and their rickety house had collapsed in the last dust storm.  Now alone (their mother had run off with a Bible salesman a while ago) with no shelter, the pair started hiking only to run into more dust storms.  They had found a spot under a bridge that protected them from one storm, and waded through dust holding onto fence wire during another.

     The only way out of the Dust Bowl, they figured, was to steal a car from Old Man Turpin and head to East Texas where Jane said she had relatives.  It wasn't really stealing because Turpin was dead; he had plain given up and sat on his porch in a rocking chair and let the dust cover him.  Turpin was friendless, had no family, and his car was only two years old.  For the young trio, this was a no-brainer.

     This boils down to a quest story:  three kids looking for a home, a safe haven.  What they find may not be what any of them expect.  Along the way, they meet up with outlaws, violent death, hoboes, and the varied characters of a traveling carnival.  Jack also experiences love for the first (and maybe last) time.  What Lansdale has given us in this novel is an evocation of a specific moment in our past, a time when the best and worst parts of our nature were on open display.

     Those who have read Lansdale's earlier work know that Lansdale isn't merely a writer; he's too damned good for that.  He is also too damned good to be considered a mere author.  What Lansdale is is a storyteller.  It's a tradition that goes back to to a time when people huddled in a cave before a fire, being enthralled and captivated by tales wild and wondrous, stories that somehow speak to basic truths.  Lansdale is our shaman, witch doctor, soothsayer, magician, priest, healer, sorcerer...he speaks to the inner core of our being, taking us on a dangerous, unexpected, and totally satisfying ride.

     Here's a link (courtesy of Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine) of Lansdale reading from the book:

     And, also from Bill's blog, here's Lansdale talking about the origins of the book:

     Highly recommended.

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