Author: Joe R. Lansdale
Mood: If you’re one of the freaks n’ geeks of society and want to read a violent yet also funny Western adventure about a brave group of outcasts.
I love when a book is SO DAMN GOOD that I can’t wait to write a review, so I can tell my many dozens of fans all about it. The Thicket is one of those books.
- The voice drops you instantly into the time and place
- The premise is familiar, but done in a fresh way
- It’s epic without being too long or tedious – the pacing is practically perfect
Different reviews have said that The Thicket has Tom Sawyer vibes, True Grit vibes, and also The Sisters Brothers vibes. I’m here to say that it does have all of that, and so much more. As soon as you read it, you’ll see why this book quickly became a passion film project for Peter Dinklage.
Let’s dive in.
The Thicket has a frank, headstrong narrative from its young lead, Jack Parker, paired with rich descriptions of each person and place. At its core, it’s about underdogs and oddballs stepping up to be heroes. This is where it gets its True Grit energy.
Jack is a smart, resilient, and morally upstanding teenager. But unlike True Grit’s Mattie Ross, he surprises himself by becoming a little less moral, and a lot more open-minded. And unlike True Grit, this story is at times quite gruesome and extremely violent.
Jack’s parents died of smallpox, so his grandpa comes to take him and his sister, Lula, to Kansas. Not far into the journey they come up against a group of bandits led by Cutthroat Bill. As a storm pummels a river ferry, the grandpa is murdered. When Jack wakes up on the riverbank, the bandits have made off with Lula.
Through a series of well-meaning yet wholly unfortunate events, Jack enlists a crew to pursue Cutthroat Bill into The Thicket, a lawless forest region from which few people have ever returned. He hires the talents of a half-Black, half-Comanche man named Eustace, who is somewhat good at tracking (as long as he doesn’t get drunk), and his partners: an extremely well-educated and commanding little person called Shorty, and a giant boar hog named Hog, who provides ENDLESS dark comic relief throughout the book.
Along the way, they also acquire a runaway prostitute named Jimmie-Sue, a crusty old bounty-hunter-turned-sheriff named Winton, and a Black man called Spot who mostly joins them because Winton owes him money. On the way to The Thicket they have to kill a lot of people, and it’s highly unlikely that their group will survive the mission intact.
The Thicket reads like a tall tale that’s so crazy it might be true, told by a regular, flawed teenage boy. Jack is trying so hard to step up and be a man, but he’s still a bit wide-eyed and naive to the ways of the world. I tend to cringe at the phrase ‘coming of age novel’, but Jack really does do a lot of growing up on this journey, juxtaposed on the turning point of the Wild West eroding into ‘civilized’ American society.
The characters here are just f*cking brilliant. Jack isn’t even the most interesting by far – he’s basically the group’s straight man and its flickering moral compass. Every single one of the others has layers and layers of life and experience behind everything they say and do. It takes great storytelling to make me want spinoff prequels for multiple characters, and I would 1000% read a prequel about Eustace, Hog, and Shorty, and one about Winton.
I think the concept of a kid and a Black man having dangerous adventures involving several murderers is where people get the Tom Sawyer vibes, but the dark themes and constant prejudice towards the characters seem more Huckleberry Finn to me.
The violence isn’t casually described like in The Sisters Brothers, due to young Jack’s religious views and desire to NOT kill anyone, but trust that it’s every bit as plentiful. I should have kept track of the body count – it’s definitely double digits. I mean, they’re chasing a group of ruthless, sadistic killers. It was always going to be bloody. There’s nothing gratuitous about it; the characters all kind of grimly accept that it’s just what has to happen.
I’m a little torn on how to feel about author Joe R. Lansdale.
His mind created Bubba Ho-Tep, which I absolutely love because it gave us Bruce Campbell as an aging, mummy-fighting Elvis. But Lansdale also wrote Jonah Hex: Shadows West, which is a vile abomination on my beloved Hex graphic novels.
The Thicket is a truly outstanding piece of writing that makes me excited to write. Like, it makes me love my craft and want to take time off work and finally complete and publish something other than marketing blogs and Western reviews. No offense, I love you all dearly, but how great would it be to have someone else reviewing MY book?
Anyway, I guess the score is 2:1 for Lansdale, which means I like him again. Go Lansdale.
The Thicket is a new favourite for me. I will definitely read it again.