Edge of Dark Water.
Joe R. Lansdale.
Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2012.
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
The river flowed on like nothing had ever happened on it, to us or anyone else. It was just the river. I had the sudden idea it was like life, that river. You just flowed on it, and if there came a big rain, a flood or some such, and some of it was washed out, in time it would all wash back together. Oh, it might look some different, but it would be the same, really. It didn’t change, but the people on that river did. I knew I had. And Mama had, and so had Terry, and maybe Jinx—but with her it was hard to tell. (291)
These lines from Joe R. Lansdale’s beautifully written Edge of Dark Water give away nothing of the plot of the novel—other than that there is a river involved, and four people—but in a larger sense it helps define the entire effect of reading this meticulously crafted novel.
Four people, each trying to escape something, all running away from something, set out on a barge on the Sabine River in East Texas, pursued by their pasts, their memories…and several vicious men determined to kill them or bring them back. They face natural disasters, they meet helpers and hinderers along the way, they confront issues of life and death, they come face to face with mortality, and eventually they arrive—altered physically and emotionally—at the aptly named Gladewater, a place of rest, regeneration and recovery. So much for the overt plot.
By itself, it is sufficiently interesting to keep readers involved over the 300 pages of the novel.
But what makes Edge of Dark Water more than just an engaging read and elevates it to the level of a deeply meaningful experience is the deft hand of master storyteller Joe R. Lansdale who, from the beginning, weaves intricate characters, at times explosive action, and a haunting sense of archetype and organic symbol into much more than just a well-handled plot.
From the first line, Lansdale introduces us to an other-world, an other-time, that is both here-and-now and sometime in an unspecified past. There is a bit of the conventional “Once upon a time” fairy-tale opening in the arresting first sentence: “That summer, Daddy went from telephoning and dynamiting fish to poisoning them with green walnuts.” And that is appropriate, since many of the events in the novel are equally fairy-tale-like. There is a cruel step-father (sort of); a frightful ogre that seems more unstoppable force of nature than human; a wicked witch who lives in a tumble-down cottage deep in the woods; a small party that might almost be gypsies but that are actually refugees from the Great Dust Bowl in Oklahoma (one of the few time references in the novel); even a rather bland Prince Charming character who, for a brief time, offers shelter to the wanderers.
At the same time, there are biblical references, ironic names that suggest important elements of characters’ make-ups and backgrounds, a raft that—along with the colloquial tone of the narrator—suggests Huckleberry Finn and his voyage of discovery and maturation along a longer, but parallel river.
All of these disparate elements come together in Edge of Dark Water to create an at-times gentle, at-times terrifying story. Lansdale has chosen well: characters, landscape, episodes, language—all work to make the novel unforgettable.