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Onyx reviews: Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

Joe Lansdale knows how to open a novel. In Edge of Dark Water, two teenagers, a sixteen-year-old girl named Sue Ellen and her possibly gay friend Terry, are watching her father and uncle fishing. Fishing is, perhaps, not the best description for what they're doing, as there are no rods and worms involved. Instead, the adults are poisoning fish with sacks full of walnuts—which is a step up from using dynamite or electricity. One of the walnut bags Sue Ellen drags to shore catches on something. It turns out to be the body of one of their friends, May Lynn Baxter, weighed down with a Singer sewing machine. 

Given Lansdale's penchant for writing crime novels, one might expect the rest of the book to be about the search to find May Lynn's killer. However, nobody—not even the local constable—is much interested in who killed her. The adults would all have been perfectly happy dumping her body back in the water and the teenagers don't consider for a moment investigating her murder. May Lynn was the prettiest girl in East Texas and something of a wild child. She always wanted to go to Hollywood and become a movie star, so her friends decide to dig up her body after the funeral, cremate it, and take a raft down the Sabine River to Gladewater, where they will catch a bus to Los Angeles, thus fulfilling her dream. 

That's the plan, anyway.

To fund their mission, they dig up the money May Lynn's dead brother robbed from a bank, using a treasure map they find among her belongings. They have a few moral qualms about stealing stolen money, but only a few.

Sue Ellen, Terry and Jinx Smith, their black friend, all have reasons for wanting to escape from East Texas. At the last minute, Sue Ellen's mother shows up, announcing she's going to join them. This comes as a great surprise to Sue Ellen because for the last few years, her mother has been self medicating herself into oblivion with a laudanum "cure all" to cope with her sorry circumstances. Sue Ellen's father, a raging drunk, beats her mother regularly and has been touching Sue Ellen inappropriately for the past few years.

They don't make a clean getaway. Word gets out about the bank money, and they are pursued as they make their way down the hazardous river on a rickety raft. Among those reportedly on their trail is a man who seems more legend than real—a relentless killer known as Skunk who lives in the woods and supposedly chops off the hands of his victims. They have few provisions, relying on the goodwill of people they encounter on the banks of the river and on their skills to find food in the wild. 

The river raft adventures conjure inevitable memories of Huckleberry Finn. Having Jinx along raises issues of race relations in rural East Texas during the Depression. For a while, the group stays with a preacher who is attracted to Sue Ellen's mother. The preacher has a dark secret of his own that makes him wonder if he was called to God or if he is using religion as an escape. The travelers' presence, though, creates all manner of issues with his congregation involving both race and sexual propriety. When the group sets out again, their number has grown by one. They're like pied pipers, picking up followers as the river takes them toward their destination.

Some of the people they meet are friendly and welcoming, sharing what little they have, but the group has an unpleasant encounter with an old woman who is simply ornery and mean. They also have a few misadventures on the water that mean that not everyone who starts out on the journey makes it to the end, at least not in one piece.

Edge of Dark Water isn't as slap-dash funny as Lansdale's Hap and Leonard novels, but it maintains his laconic sense of humor in the face of terrible circumstances. Skunk has his antecedents in other Lansdale novels, too, most notably in Devil Red, a combination of every quasi-supernatural villain from horror movies. The unstoppable kind that always seems to escape death and return when least expected. It's not exactly clear what purpose a character like Skunk serves in this book except to heighten the tension. The real boogey men (Sue Ellen's father and May Lynn's father, for example) are terrible enough as it is.

The teens are forced to come of age before their time. Sue Ellen learns a great deal about herself, her mother, her heritage and what really happened to May Lynn. Many of the lessons she learns aren't easy. But readers will happily follow her harrowing journey down the Sabine to Gladewater and perhaps to Hollywood as well.

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