Friday, November 04, 2011

All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky or Pretty, Pretty Titles sometime aren't

I'm going to say that I loved the first chapter of this. Loved. Even now, as I read it for the fourth time, I believe that first chapter and a few that follow it are beautifully written, tonally perfect, and bleak as hell. Bleak in a deliciously appropriate way. It is, after all, set during the Dust Bowl. All the Earth Thrown to the Sky by Joe Lansdale begs to be read aloud, and I was happy to oblige with Kyle as my quickly engrossed victim.

"The wind could blow down a full-grown man, but it was the dust that was the worst. If the dust was red, I could figure it was out of Oklahoma, where we were. But if it was white, it was part of Texas come to fall on us, and if it was darker, it was probably peppering down from Kansas or Nebraska.

Mama always claimed you could see the face of the devil in them sandstorms, you looked hard enough. I don't know about that, it being the devil and all, but I can tell you for sure there were times when the sand seemed to have shape, and I thought maybe I could see a face in it, and it was a mean face, and it was a face that had come to puff up and blow us away"
p 1.


June 4, 1937. Goodwell, Oklahoma (picture by Mrs. Emma Love)
Found here.


There's nothing left in Oklahoma for Jack Catcher. His parents are dead; his mom from the dirty pneumonia of the dust storms, his dad, suicide. There's nothing left for Jane and Tony Lewis either. Their dad got run over by his tractor as he fruitlessly tried to plant in dead ground, and their mom disappeared as easily as the good farming soil that used to provide a living for both families. It's the Great Depression, and there's nothing left for anyone, so the three of them might as well set out and just hope for something better than the nothing they've got. There's nothing to lose but their sorry lives - which might be exactly what the wind takes next as they spin from one adventure to the next, stealing cars, hopping trains, running into murderous bank robbers and criminal farmers and traveling circuses.

To my disappointment, while the writing is always beautiful, as the madcap - well, madcap isn't quite the correct word as it implies a levity that the book lacks, but we'll go with it - as the madcap plot revs up it never quite matches the tone of the writing. Does the writing match the barren setting? Yes. The hopeless era? Definitely. What you essentially have in this novel is an old-fashioned adventure plot that has potential for serious consequences. But despite the horror of the first chapters, and even of the repeated danger of the subsequent events, there is a distancing that takes away the visceral impact the first chapter had, and therefore removes the feeling of true danger the events warrant. Now, of course, that's my interpretation, so perhaps others felt differently while reading. However, when you never really believe the worst will actually happen to the characters, dire situations become less threatening and that bleak, hopeless writing doesn't have anywhere to go.

This is what I believe the intent to be: I think Lansdale wanted the plot to mirror the uncontrollable dust storms with three kids swept up in adventure and danger as though they were the earth that had lost its ground. It is in part, successful. But not entirely. After those first few chapters I never felt invested in Jack Catcher again. He's overshadowed by Jane and her lying ways (despite the fact that we never really understand quite why she's so pathological in her falsehoods). The driving force is not so much the wind and it's random ways, as it is Jane. Now, does Jane personify the wind? Perhaps. Everyone and thing must fall in line with her whims, and she'll say anything to make it happen. Which is not bad, but if this is her story, and Jack is detritus that helps her on her way, her character isn't quite developed enough for the reader to become anything but irritated at how she gets in everyone's way by lying outrageously each time she opens her mouth.

It ceased to be the character driven novel one would expect from the opening chapters and the traditional "road trip" theme, and became merely a series of crazy events that were not only improbable in a setting that was all too real, but didn't possess gravitas in tune with that beautiful opening. You can't have a character be the driving force unless you want to have a character-driven plot, and you can't have a plot-driven plot diven book unless you want to invest in some sort of logic to the series of events. What happens in cases like these, when you don't pick a side (or fail to invest enough in either side), is that the whole thing flounders. And that's what happened here. It just got boring. Which, HELLO, there are murderous robbers, and kindly old ladies, and alligators, and carnies, and... and... WHY WAS THIS BORING?

"The humming blackness came doen from the sky and hit the willows down below, and in a moment the grasshoppers ate the green off of them, and the willows shook like they was in a high wind, but the only wind was the wind the grasshoppers made" p 76.

It may appeal to those who liked As Easy as Falling of the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins. Or those who really dig the old-time romantic bank robbers and gangsters from that era like Bonnie and Clyde and Babyface Nelson, who were clearly inspiration to the plot. Although those looking for that subplot will probably be left wanting more than the book delivers on that subject. It was beautifully written on the technical and art side, but lacked both plot and character development.


Found here.


Copy obtained through publisher, Delacorte Press. Started to read because I wanted to, finished because it is a Cybils 2011 YA Fiction nominated title.

2 comments:

tanita davis said...

Well, boo.
I do love the title - but like the novel, And Falling, Fly, of which I couldn't get past the first chapter - it sounds like the author might have started with a fab title and worked backwards.

I'd still like to read that amazing first chapter!

Jackie Parker said...

You can! The whole first chapter is currently an excerpt on Amazon! I should have mentioned that.