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Onyx reviews: The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale

Now an old man, narrator Harry Crane remembers the summer when he and his younger sister "Tom" discovered the body of a black woman on the bank of the Sabine River on a sweltering summer day during the Depression. They were in the woods on an unpleasant mission: Harry was to dispatch his severely dog Toby, injured by a falling tree. The two children wander through the maze of trees, bolstered by Toby's gradual recovery, finding ever more reasons to avoid the task. Their grisly discovery drives all thoughts of shooting the dog from their minds. On the way back home, bursting with their news, they have a brief encounter with the legendary "Goat Man," who Henry is sure must be responsible for the crime.

Harry's father, Jacob, runs the family farm and owns a barbershop in nearby Marvel Creek, a two-street town with more potholes than stores. He's also the town constable, a job he acquired by default. Prior to Harry and Tom's discovery, being constable mostly entailed keeping Old Man Crittendon's hogs off the street and out of people's houses.

The white population of Marvel Creek has little interest in the death of a black woman, even one that has been bound, tortured, and mutilated. In nearby Pearl Creek, the colored community built on land that was once the bottom of a now-drained swamp, the residents know that this crime, and any that might follow, will not be seriously investigated.

When the local white doctor refuses to "contaminate" his office with the murder victim's corpse, Jacob consults Dr. Tinn, a black doctor developing techniques that will evolve into the science of forensic pathology. Recognizing similarities to the deaths of several other young black prostitutes, Jacob and Tinn suspect that a serial killer, a heretofore unheard of phenomenon, is at work. Miss Maggie, Marvel Creek's ageless resident mystic, thinks the crimes are the work of a "Travelin' Man," someone passing through.

Jacob is nervous. Many of the fine citizens of Marvel Creek are Klan members and he fears that sooner or later the killer will pick a white woman, causing the simmering racial tension to boil over. When he makes a serious error of judgment and the investigation goes bad, Jacob's family is nearly destroyed. Young Henry sees his father and his community in a new light and devotes himself to saving both.

Lansdale, who lives in Nacogdoches, is not known as a literary writer. He has a cult following for his horror stories, westerns, and offbeat crime novels. In The Bottoms, which is an expanded and altered version of his novella "Mad Dog Summer," he displays elegance and style that will surprise many. Always deft at characterization, Lansdale has created a vibrant portrait of a small town ravaged by hatred, and young children who lose their innocence when they are drawn into the adult lives of their parents and neighbors.

The Bottoms will invariably be compared with To Kill a Mockingbird. It, too, is a coming-of-age story told from the point of view of a child whose father is a symbol of law and order. There is a mysterious figure around which a local legend has evolved. Racial tension and the sultry heat of summer in the south breathe life into the story. It bears up well in these comparisons. Jacob Crane is not Atticus Finch, though. While some town people look to him for leadership, others seek to bend him to their will. He is ill-equipped to face the job of keeping the peace that has been thrust upon him in these difficult times. His seems all the more real for his weaknesses.

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