Fender Lizards by Joe R. Lansdale
Subterranean Press (November 2015)
You might not expect a guy who writes unflinching horror to also write rawly accurate coming-of-age stories.
You might not expect a guy who writes convincingly about a duo of hard-hitting, blue collar do-gooders to also write convincingly about a small-town girl looking for direction in a directionless life.
If that’s the case, you might not be familiar with Joe R. Lansdale.
Lansdale writes about all of the above, and more. But this isn’t a career retrospective of one of my favorite writers, it’s a review. The book we’re looking at is the one I mentioned about the small-town girl looking for direction in a directionless life. It’s called Fender Lizards, it was recently released by Subterranean Press, and it’s damn good.
Dorothy “Dot” Sherman is a seventeen-year-old Fender Lizard, which is to say she’s a roller-skating waitress at a local diner called the Dairy Bob. Her father took off years ago – a classic case of “gone to get a pack of cigarettes and never came back” – and she’s living in a small trailer with a fairly large group of people. Her family has added a new member, an uncle she never knew she had named Elbert. Elbert has parked his van in their front yard and is living out of it, trying to connect with his brother’s family.
In fact, it seems like everyone in Fender Lizards trying to make some kind of connection – some with other people, and some with life itself. Elbert’s sudden appearance is just one of a handful of sparks jolting Lansdale’s richly-drawn cast out characters out of their stupors. There’s also a new suitor for Dot; an escape from an abusive husband for Dot’s sister, Raylynn; and a travelling roller derby for Dot and her fellow Lizards from the Dairy Bob. Lansdale lays out these various threads and developments just as natural as you please, and it’s a delight watching these people all realize that there really is something out there for each of them to strive for.
I could go on for days about Lansdale’s natural storytelling ability, in particular his exceptional ear for dialogue. But perhaps his most amazing achievement in this particular book is his ability to write a teenage girl that is not only recognizable as a vintage Lansdale character, but is also recognizable as, well, a teenage girl. Dot is not a caricature; she is a fully realized person, a young woman with a bit of a short fuse and a sassy mouth; a girl who can get her feelings hurt, who can be a bit jaded sometimes, but who hasn’t completely lost the ability to dream of something different, something better. There’s hope in her, and it’s something she shares with everyone around her.
Fender Lizards is a relatively short novel, and Lansdale doesn’t attempt to put a neat bow around everything, which is refreshing. We come into Dot’s life at a certain point and we leave at a certain point, and at that point some things have changed and some things are still up in the air. I’d like to know more, and perhaps Lansdale will revisit Dot and her friends and family one day; but if not, I’m happy with the time I got to spend with them. I think you will be, too.