Review: The Thicket

Posted: May 6, 2014 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: Joe R. Lansdale, Western

I’m not entirely sure when I last read a Western. Probably TRUE GRIT. Before that? Who knows? See, I grew up on Westerns. Louis L’Amour was my go-to author for the longest time. I loved the sense of adventure and the roughness of the world L’Amour’s characters inhabited. I watched John Wayne movies and loved every last one of them. From there came Tombstone and Unforgiven, and I realized how much I loved a darker Western story. I count NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN in that camp. But really, finding good Westerns is tough sledding these days. For me, I know within the first page of a novel or the opening minutes of a movie if I’m going to like it or not.

At WorldCon in 2013, Joe Lansdale showed me his new novel, THE THICKET (Amazon). A straight-up Western. I went home, grabbed a copy, and just finally got around to reading it. From the first paragraph, I knew I would love the novel. Love at first sight, if you will. Once I’d turned that final page, I remembered every tiny reason why I loved Westerns.

I loved this novel.

From Amazon:

Jack Parker thought he’d already seen his fair share of tragedy. His grandmother was killed in a farm accident when he was barely five years old. His parents have just succumbed to the smallpox epidemic sweeping turn-of-the-century East Texas–orphaning him and his younger sister, Lula.

Then catastrophe strikes on the way to their uncle’s farm, when a traveling group of bank-robbing bandits murder Jack’s grandfather and kidnap his sister. With no elders left for miles, Jack must grow up fast and enlist a band of heroes the likes of which has never been seen if his sister stands any chance at survival. But the best he can come up with is a charismatic, bounty-hunting dwarf named Shorty, a grave-digging son of an ex-slave named Eustace, and a street-smart woman-for-hire named Jimmie Sue who’s come into some very intimate knowledge about the bandits (and a few members of Jack’s extended family to boot). 

THE THICKET is told from Jack’s PoV in 1st Person. Jack is immediately likable with a mix of innocence and wonder to go along with raw determination. After his sister is kidnapped, he does his level-best to find the people to help track her down. There is a purity to his cause, though never once in the novel does Lansdale shy away from the harsh realities facing a girl in that situation.

The story one of pursuit, and revenge. It’s about Jack growing up the hard way. I was constantly amazed, however, just how deftly Lansdale tells his story. At times he shies away from the brutal details, and then at others he gives the most horrid and vivid picture of them.

I think this is the mark of an experienced storyteller. This ability for the timing of certain things. Humor. Horror. Love. Violence. Honesty. Tenderness. Each has a part in a novel, but knowing when to show them is the key. To me, this is the single greatest reason why I love Lansdale’s work. I can see the work he’s put in over the years to hone his craft. There were times when I was appalled at the brutality he brought up. Others where I laughed out loud. Then others where I was touched. This is the mark of a great author.

I always focus on character. Great characters are what I read for. While Jack was great, this story wouldn’t have been even close to as incredible without Shorty and Eustace. The banter they have, and the history they reference was awesome. Some of the conversations they each have with Jack create more character development in a page than many authors are able to achieve over the course of a full novel. Jimmie Sue was also a great character, but for different reasons. It’s what she represents and her attitude that make her stand out amidst other female characters in fiction.

Westerns have always been–to me at least–about the legends of characters. Without spoiling anything, I love how this is represented in THE THICKET.

THE THICKET is the Western novel I didn't know could be written anymore. It's got all the best things from the novel TRUE GRIT and the movie Unforgiven.

Here is the heart of the matter. THE THICKET is the Western novel I didn’t know could be written anymore. It’s got all the things I loved about the novel TRUE GRIT, and the movie Unforgiven. Maybe you want to read a good Western. Maybe you haven’t ever read one, but want to give it a shot. Maybe you just want to read a great novel with great characters.

THE THICKET is that novel.

  • Recommended Age: 17+
  • Language: Plenty, usually comes from certain characters
  • Violence: There were some scenes that were shocking. But it never felt like shock-value
  • Sex: Yeah. Jimmie Sue is a prostitute, after all. Lots of talk. Nothing super detail in way of scenes. Some talk of rape.

Just buy this book.

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