Joe R. Lansdale Sunset and Sawdust Reviewed by Rick Kleffel

Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

Sunset and Sawdust

Joe R. Lansdale

Knopf / Random House

US Hardcover First Edition

ISBN 0-375-41453-3

Publication Date: 03-16-2004

321 Pages; $22.00

Date Reviewed: 04-19-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



Mystery, General Fiction

11-13-02, 12-31-02, 04-30-03, 06-14-04

With all the subjects and specializations of the literary landscape, sometimes the language gets lost. For many readers, it's good enough that a work be of one particular genre or another, from one particular publisher or another, that a work have one particular subject or object. Many of those works may be quite well-written, and more of them may be close enough for government work. But each and every one of these works is written with words that individually are one hundred percent the same. What the writers of these works bring to the proceedings is not just the genre, the subject, the beloved setting or the warmly-remembered character. Writers come to the reader via language.

It's easier to realize this when you get a work like 'Sunset and Sawdust', the latest novel from Joe R. Lansdale. Lansdale's latest is a rip-roaring western set in the Depression-era Texas, much like his Edgar Award winning novel 'The Bottoms'. Familiarity isn't the main draw here. 'Sunset and Sawdust' offers the reader 321 pages of Lansdale's pithy and amusing storytelling voice. To be sure, Lansdale's got characters you love and settings you won't forget. But Lansdale's way with language is what draws his readers to the vast variety of novels that he writes. Lansdale connects with the reader using words to provide pure reading pleasure no matter what he's writing about.

As 'Sunset and Sawdust' opens, he needs that talent because he's describing circumstances that in less-skilled hands could have been fatally off-putting. In the midst of a Texas cyclone, while it's raining frogs and fish, Sunset Jones is being beaten and raped by her husband, Pete Jones, the constable of the small sawmill town of Camp Rapture. She kills him with his own pistol. In short order she's made the constable herself, and thereafter starts looking into a crime that may unravel a lot of plans being made in other parts of Camp Rapture. Those making the plans won't take kindly to her snooping.

Lansdale's prose would be the star of this novel, were he not wise enough to use it as a fine tool with which to build a finer novel. Not a page goes by without a description or turn of phrase ("the dress, rotten as politics, had torn") that the reader will want to tuck back into memory for use and appreciation over the long run. Lansdale writes with an easy sense of humor that permeates every aspect of the storytelling. It lets him get into some difficult subjects with a light heart but a strong message. The very bottom line is that if you like reading, you're likely to like Lansdale.

While the words that tell the story are stellar, they're put to good use. 'Sunset and Sawdust' is a low-key but high-tension page-turner that creates a rather unpleasant town filled with characters who are both loathsome and lovable. You won't forget any of them, from HillBilly an itinerant guitarist, to Goose, a twelve-year old orphan turned out of his house to make way for his younger siblings. Lansdale creates a large cast of memorable, three-dimensional characters, most of whom the reader wishes to see again. Those whom you don't wish to see again are nonetheless crystal clear.

Lansdale's setting is brought vividly to life. 'Sunset and Sawdust' may be set in the 1930's, but it has much of the ambience of a Wild West thriller. From the sawmill to the hotel where the apron-clad McBride holds court to send forth his chicken-shit cold-blooded killers, Lansdale draws the reader into a world where beat-up sedans swerve off of dirt roads to avoid collisions with sharecropper's wagons. Lansdale makes the most of this diversity to paint a picture as big as Texas.

At heart, 'Sunset and Sawdust' is a mystery, an investigation into a crime that might have been passed over, had Sunset not been made constable. Lansdale draws together threads of racism, sexism, small-time corruption and big-time bloodletting. It's not a here-are-the-clues-figure-out-the-crime style mystery, but rather a slow unveiling of the past when the bodies are found in the present. Lansdale doesn't stint on the satisfaction side. While characters you like will die, characters you hate will also die in a manner most satisfactory. Yes, Lansdale skirts the edge of reality now and again. But not so much because the story is unbelievable, but rather because it has the feel of a fable, a tall tale, a bigger-than-life story that gains power and tells us more about life than life itself is inclined to impart.

'Sunset and Sawdust' offers smart writing, clear characters, great prose and a fascinating re-creation of the past. But it's an unambiguous whole; every piece disappears into the final work itself. And that work is not only pithy and moving, it's also one hell of a lot of fun. Readers looking for the whole enchilada, served Texas-style need look no further than 'Sunset and Sawdust'. And chances are, when they're done, they'll be looking for another Sunset novel to follow.