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THE SATURDAY READ

A folklorist's whodunit

Leather Maiden; A Novel; Joe R. Lansdale; Alfred A. Knopf: 290 pp., $23.95

August 23, 2008|Del Howison | Special to The Times

If 10 excellent authors wrote the same book, the same story, in their own way, nobody would like all of them even though the subject was the same. Why is that? Why can a tale be told and retold, and some versions resonate for us while others don't?

It has to do with the teller, not the tale.

To enjoy a novel, the author's voice has to touch readers and wake up something inside them that will spark a vision, a smell or a memory. Sometimes these cortical flashes are uncomfortable, touching nerves and displaying small animated remembrances of bad times gone by. They can make us edgy and nervous, and are the meat and potatoes of a great suspense story. Like a roller coaster at an amusement park, we love the ride even as it scares the living daylights out of us. We'll even ride it again the first chance we get.

Sometimes, as in the case of a book by Joe R. Lansdale, those flashes are comfort food: They wrap us up and take us back to a sepia-toned time to which we can relate. Lansdale's "The Bottoms" does that. Though filled with evil ideas and vile people, that book is a greatly underappreciated novel, and I'd find it a place on my bookshelf between "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter."

Lansdale's new novel, "Leather Maiden," is lightweight in comparison to his earlier work, an airplane novel just right for reading during those new, expanded-time flights from coast to coast. That isn't a criticism, however: In this novel, Lansdale has created a landscape of broken dreams, skewed personalities and hope still clinging to the inside of the Pandora's box of problems they all share.

The narrator is Cason Statler, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated failure who is trying to claw his way back to the surface after a bout of alcoholism and the loss of the love of his life. He is battling his addictions and is a bit of a stalker too. What he hasn't lost is his keen observation of life and his nose for a good news story.

Cason and the folks of his East Texas hometown, Camp Rapture, are colorful, a bit outlandish and yet very real. Cason, who has come home to figure out what happened to his life, is a wiseguy, as so many Lansdale narrators are, but his attitude never feels forced. It comes naturally in much the same way as the wisecracks and observations of Steve Niles' detective Cal McDonald in his "Criminal Macabre" stories: They're just a way of dealing with the daily underbelly of life. Where Niles paints his stories with a supernatural-dipped brush and a broad stroke of humor, however, Lansdale takes real life and forces us to look at it through the absurdity of what living is all about. His humor comes out of that reality.

"It was Southern as all get-out," Cason says about the peculiar-sounding voice of a female character, "and it sounded as if it came from a throat that had just swallowed broken glass and followed it with a hundred proof whiskey chaser."

On the road to recovery, Cason finds a job at a local paper run by an aging editor whom Lansdale describes in detail all his own: "Her face was eroded with deep canals over which a cheap powder had been caked, like sand over the Sphinx. Her breasts rested comfortably in her lap; they seemed to have recently died and she just hadn't taken the time to dispose of them. I took her age to be somewhere between eighty and around the time of the discovery of fire."

She hires Cason, all too happy to have not only a Pulitzer Prize nominee working for her but a local boy as well. He is assigned to write a regular column, and, in clearing out the former columnist's files, he finds notes on an unsolved murder that piques his journalistic curiosity. But as the threads of his investigation begin to weave themselves into a cohesive tale, it all gets a little too close for comfort. His brother was involved with the dead girl, and there's a coverup going on. The deeper Cason descends, the worse the situation becomes until he is faced with a dilemma: Does he cover for a family member (who may be innocent but would be ruined by this scandal) or does he do his job and uncover the news?

The author of "Sunset and Sawdust" and "Lost Echoes," Lansdale has been called a folklorist, and "Leather Maiden" makes you want to sit on a porch listening to him spin a yarn that you know doesn't contain a true sentence.

He doesn't write of great issues that affect the world -- unless, of course, the world can be boiled down to some small town. As with another great folklorist, James Sallis, Lansdale talks about morality, aching hearts and common sense, which his characters don't seem to possess in great abundance, and also about the effect one person has on everyone else. He also reminds us of the importance of family both good and bad. "When you grow up in a place, especially if your childhood is a good one," Cason explains, "you fail to notice a lot of nasty things that creep beneath the surface and wiggle about like hungry worms in rotten flesh."

At the beginning of David Lynch's film "Blue Velvet," you may remember that the camera presents a typical American neighborhood and then moves closer, right through the sod and down into the ground as a metaphor for the nasty secrets hiding behind the veil of societal correctness. Lansdale's novel is a trip into that same hidden shame. You may not enjoy the exposure, but you'll definitely enjoy the ride.

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Del Howison is the owner of Dark Delicacies Bookstore in Burbank and a Bram Stoker Award-winning editor. A Shirley Jackson Award nominee, he is the co-editor, with Amy Wallace and Scott Bradley, of the forthcoming "The Book of Lists: Horror."

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