Not many books have been set in the woods of East Texas. Certainly, those that have number less than those set in California, New York or Florida.
That’s what I liked most about Joe Lansdale’s standalone mystery, The Bottoms. Told from the perspective of an old man thinking back to his childhood in the Great Depression, Lansdale does a great job of setting the scene in the bottoms of the Sabine River.
When I was a kid, my grandparents had a cabin in Deweyville, which I imagine is close to what Lansdale is describing here. Through that cabin, I can see the dirt roads, the mud banks of the river and the forested areas where his characters roam.
The mystery at the heart of the book is who committed a series of murders. The mystery itself is solid. Lansdale lays out his characters carefully, checking in on many of them as the book moves along briskly and sending out enough red herrings to make the ending a surprise.
The characterization for some people in the story was also solid. The main character had a journey, though his coming of age story felt a little rushed over the 300-odd pages of the book. The time frame only covered six to nine months, yet our narrator pretty quickly went from being seen as a child to being read into adult actions.
Maybe finding a body will do that to someone. Maybe saving a father from a lynch mob also helps.
The narrator’s father has his point of view pretty clearly defined, too, along with the mother and grandmother. The secondary characters are thinner and are there to either be suspects in the ongoing mystery or the unwitting victims.
As a first-person story, the narrative also goes through some backflips to make sure our hero can experience all the events to bring the plot around, no matter if it makes sense for him to be there. Over the course of the book, he sees or hears important scenes from the roof of an icehouse, under a porch and in a barn. Oh, and of course there was the aforementioned lynch mob, but to say more spoils part of the plot.
The other big issue here is the setting itself. As the story of a kid recollecting his time growing up in the Depression and in East Texas no less, race and class are at the forefront of the narrative. The narrator and his family are white, but they’re good whites who think it’s wrong their black neighbors are mistreated.
This leads to all sorts of problems for the family and brings in a fairly harrowing scene with the Klu Klux Klan. And yet. It’s still too pat to have the narrator’s family be so good, they’re not affected by societal pressure. Showing the family as being of their time may not be as aspirational, but it may be more accurate.
Oh, this innate goodness leads to another groaning plot point: the father falls hard off the wagon after that pesky lynch mob scene, getting falling-down drunk on the regular for maybe a month in book time? The passage of time is nebulous at best.
The narrator finds out, disapproves and shames his dad into quitting for good. The mom and the grandmother knew, but it was the boy who did the trick.
This seems like a pretty negative review, but The Bottoms was an enjoyable read! The mystery was genuinely entertaining and twisty enough so that I didn’t figure it out until close to the end. The relationship between the grandmother and the kids was entertaining, as she showed a conspiratorial spirit that made them partners in some of the book’s adventures.
The main thing that stood out was the setting itself. When the characters tramped through the forests and bottoms of East Texas, the book came alive. If you’ve spent time there and think of it fondly, it’s worth reading just for that.