Joe Lansdale writes some weird stuff. Consider “Bubba Ho-Tep,” a novella about a dying Elvis impersonator living in a nursing home, a black man who believes he’s JFK in hiding from the government, and a mummy who’s stealing the souls of the nursing home residents.
Sunset and Sawdust is a more mainstream novel for Lansdale, set in 1930s Texas, but it’s not without the normal Lansdale weirdness. Sunset, the main character, so named because of her long, fiery-red hair, has just shot her husband because she’s had enough of him beating her up and raping her. When she goes to her mother-in-law for help, she finds not a woman distressed at the loss of her son, but a sympathetic woman who gives her the position of Constable at Camp Rapture, the local sawmill. Aside from her bring a woman constable in Depression-era Texas, she raises even more controversy because the constable she replaced was Pete, the husband she shot.
A lot happens in this brief novel, but Lansdale pulls it off without making it seem convoluted (an achievement all by itself) or forced. At the beginning of the novel, I had an issue with how one of the characters reacted to a certain plot point, but by the end of the book, Lansdale had explained that away, and made it seem more acceptable. It was a bit jarring at first, but by the time I had finished the book and thought back on the beginning, knowing the whole story, it made perfect sense. I should have known to expect something like that, knowing that Lansdale is an accomplished writer with more than a few tricks, but it was a nice surprise. It just reaffirms my faith in him as an author.
The other great thing about Lansdale is his turns of phrase. He writes like you would expect a Texan would , and comes up with some very clever metaphors. He describes the color of a sunset as being like a razor had been slashed across the horizon, and he describes a hot, searing sun as like a blister hanging in the sky. The banter between characters is also a sort of signature of Lansdale’s, and it never gets tiring; if nothing else, it accounts for much of the humor in his stories. It’s always dry, but it never fails to get a laugh from me.
Lansdale, though, is also a brutal writer. He doesn’t hesitate to show you the darkest nature of his characters (protagonists and antagonists alike), and he won’t shy away from violence. I suppose you could best categorize his books as noir, but the East Texas settings, and the characters who live there, make his stories a category unto themselves. Noir is usually reserved for dark alleys and average men; Lansdale populates his stories with bright, sunlit areas and odd characters. Southern noir? Country noir? Who knows? It’s worth reading, though, and Sunset and Sawdust is as good a place as any to start.