JOE R. LANSDALE
(Mysterious Press; 1999)
A wildly profane and plain
crazy concoction that reads like a deranged collaboration between Flannery
OíConnor and Jim Thompson. Actually itís pure, unadulterated Joe R. Lansdale
through and through. Lansdale, for those who donít know, is Texasí most
outrageous author, whose considerable literary output includes the bestselling
Hap and Leonard crime series (SAVAGE SEASON, MUCHO MOJO, TWO BEAR MAMBO, etc.),
the source material for Don Coscarelliís cult film BUBBA HO-TEP and the
legendary short story ďThe Night They Missed The Horror Show.Ē Only JRL could
have come up with this novelís completely loony conceit: a criminal on the run
in the Deep South takes up with a traveling freak show bearing a frozen corpse
that may or may not be the body of Jesus Christ.
Bill Roberts is quite
a character: a frankly amoral scumbag who as the novel opens is living with his
motherís recently deceased corpse. This hopeless loser, finding his options at
a premium after forging his motherís signature on too many bad checks, decides
to rob a fireworks stand with two fellow no-hopers. They botch the job
spectacularly, leading to a nutty chase through a swamp that only Bill survives,
albeit with a number of severe mosquito bites that deform his face to the point
that he fits in quite well with the denizens of the aforementioned freak show.
Life in the freak show is as youíd expect:
freaky. Characters include bickering pinheads, a dog man, a pumpkin head and a
bearded lady. Even the showís seemingly upstanding owner Frost has a hand
growing out of his chest (a remnant of a formerly conjoined twin). But itís
Frostís vivacious wife Gidget who proves to be the freakiest character of all.
And donít forget that tank with the frozen body inside it; whether itís Jesus
Christ or not, it certainly seems to have a supernatural aura...a fact not lost
on Bill, whoís forced to sleep with the thing! A redemption of sorts is in
order for our seemingly incorrigible protagonist, depending on how long he
manages to stay alive.
At times I thought I
was reading a Southern-fried rewrite of FREAKS (Lansdale even borrows its famous
ďOne of usĒ line), at others an X-rated retelling of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS
TWICE, yet FREEZER BURN remains a stubbornly original, deeply unpredictable
creation throughout. Quite simply, I was never able to predict what was
coming next, and thatís a large part of what made the book such a kick.
Itís also screamingly
funny. Lansdale can be goddamn hilarious when he wants to be, and this book was
clearly one of those occasions. Gidgetís recounting of the unexpected death of
her ex-husband (no fair revealing the details) gave me on one of the biggest
laughs Iíve had in some time. And youíll have to go a long way to find a more
outrageously funny literary setpiece than Billís early jaunt through the swamps,
which involves a number of ďaccidentalĒ deaths. As you might have gathered, the
humor here is of a decidedly dark variety, meaning it, like the book itself,
ainít for everybody, but if you like your comedy liberally spiced with mirth
then welcome to Nirvana.
The book isnít
perfect, alas. It looses its footing toward the end, with an unexpected
viewpoint shift, a somewhat inexplicable twist involving the frozen corpse and a
coda thatíll seem all-too-familiar to connoisseurs of pulp fiction. Nothing
wrong with that, but the freewheeling unpredictability of the rest of the book
led me to expect something...more.