Arts » Books

Author Jon Lansdale grabs some mainstream respect


The Bottoms (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, $14.95)

Joe Lansdale is a master of outrageously over-the-top thrillers, horror novels and "country noir" stories. He has a huge cult following, and The Bottoms, originally published nine years ago, is probably his best work. Vintage has now given Lansdale the kiss of respectability he's been denied for years, by re-publishing the book in paperback. It's a dark coming-of-age story that takes place during the Depression in Lansdale's favorite location for his books, East Texas. The tale is told by Harry, an 80-something old man, who recounts events from when he was the 13-year-old son of a county constable. The mutilated bodies of dead black prostitutes start turning up; the first one — bound by barbed wire to a tree — is found by Harry and his young sister, Tom. Harry's father investigates, but is warned off the cases by the Ku Klux Klan. When the body of a white prostitute is found, however, the town goes wild, and a white mob lynches a black man whom Harry had felt close to. He and his sister think the person responsible is the Goat Man, a beast that supposedly lives under a swinging bridge, which takes on added significance as the story moves along. The mystery is eventually solved, but the real draw here is Lansdale's intelligent, sensitive — more sensitive than his usual work — portrait of Harry's loss of innocence and how it affects his relationship with his constable father. Lansdale's descriptions of the murders are seriously gruesome, and most of the characters are people you'd run from in an alley, but the author nails the dark undertow of small-town life, and the way it can twist some of its residents' souls.

A Bomb in Every Issue by Peter Richardson (The New Press, $17.95)

Subtitled How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America, this book takes a long overdue look at the unbelievable story of Ramparts, a slick, glossy, utterly fearless leftist magazine from the 1960s. Based in San Francisco, the magazine only lasted from 1962 to 1975 (its heyday was '65-'69), but it was like a lightning bolt that shook American journalism at the time. When Ramparts, in 1966, published photos of ordinary Vietnamese people who'd been victimized by U.S. napalm, they blew the lid off the soft fantasy of "helping these backward people fight communism" to smithereens — and landed the magazine in all kinds of trouble. The publication also revealed the National Student Association's links to the CIA — virulently denied then, accepted as a given today — and went on to publish Che Guevara's diaries, dig up the first JFK assassination conspiracy theories, and splash a long, color photo essay about Haight-Ashbury through the magazine in 1967 that opened mainstream eyes to what was happening among young rebels in California. During its run, Ramparts featured writers who are still being published today: Robert Scheer, Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky, Seymour Hersh, Jonathan Kozol, Alexander Cockburn, Todd Gitlin, and more. Ramparts essentially revived the old American "muckraking" journalistic tradition, and won many fans in the process. Richardson, the author, also uses his relatively short book (250 pages) as a cautionary tale of how not to run a publication financially, filling pages with the egomaniacal antics of publisher Warren Hinckle and others. For journalism history fans, this book is essential.

The Attack On The Liberty by James Scott (Simon & Schuster, $16)

This book was published in paperback in July 2010, but I somehow missed that softer incarnation of a fine book. Charleston, S.C. journalist Scott, a former CL contributor, tells a first-rate "investigative history" of a nearly forgotten incident during the Israeli Six-Day War in 1967, an episode that involved Charlottean John Scott, his father. Ensign Scott was on the U.S. spy ship Liberty off the coast of Gaza in international waters, when America's "loyal ally," Israel, strafed the ship with rockets and napalm, then followed up with torpedoes that blew a 40-foot-wide hole in the ship, flooding the lower compartments. Thirty-four Americans were killed and 171 wounded. The entire incident was covered up, however, by President Johnson, who needed American Jewish support for his increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. This is terrific journalism, and a compellingly written story.

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