Joe R. Lansdale

"Sunset and Sawdust"

(reviewed by Judi Clark APR 23, 2004)

“Naked, except for her shoes and the gun she was holding, she wandered off of what remained of her house, stumbled down the muddy clay road in front of her place, frogs, minnows and perch hopping and flapping beneath her shoes.”

Joe Lansdale has a reputation for "mojo storytelling," which he manages to pull off in a wide assortment of genre. Near as I can tell "mojo storytelling" means that the author works magic on us; if so, then his bag of tricks includes lots of laugh-out-loud vernicular, memorable characters and non-stop quirky action. But what makes his stuff so endearing, at least to me, is his secret ingredient --Read excerpt he entwines a bit of a broad-minded liberal slant to his stories – something I never quite expect from a Texan (which I think is his point). Just look at his Hap & Leonard series, for example, where he pairs up a white heterosexual man (Hap Collins) as best friend and trouble magnet with a black homosexual man (Leonard Pine). Lansdale seems to have as good a time pointing out Leonard Pine’s reality (and thus disarming the reader’s defenses), as he does spinning the tale of whatever adventure the two friends are on. In Sunset and Sawdust, Lansdale sets the events during the Depression in East Texas; a time when a few white men were getting rich on oil and Jim Crow law was being unofficially legislated by the Ku Klux Klan. Certainly, women were supposed to know their place. Enter Sunset Jones, the heroine of this tale, the one who unexpectedly (especially to herself) sets out to straighten up a few crooked things in her sawmill town.

It’s smack in the middle of a tornado, when Sunset, having had enough of being raped by her husband Pete –the Constable of Camp Rapture-- grabs the gun from his nearby holster and shoots him in the temple, causing all of Pete to go limp. Just then the tornado rips her house away “except for the floor, two ugly chairs, an iron cookstove, Sunset and the dead man, it was all sucked up and thrown lickety-split on down country.” Not knowing where else to go, she sets out for her in-laws where her teenage daughter Karen is supposed to be. Beat up beyond recognition, wearing just a curtain that she has salvaged from a scrub tree limb, Sunset starts walking. Soon, she hails the negro man "Uncle Riley" and his son as they drive their cart towards town rounding up all the fish that the tornado has landed on the clay road. He’s a good man and naturally offers to take her into town, but as they drive along both can see the complications this creates for the colored man. A little too late, they both begin to wonder why she didn’t simply put a bullet in Pete’s leg.

When Sunset tells her in-laws that she’s killed their son, it’s as expected; Marilyn Jones, wants to kill her and nearly does. So Sunset and daughter Karen (who has her own anger about Sunset shooting her daddy) run off into the woods for the night. The next morning they have their first encounter with a good looking man who calls himself Hillbilly. He's just recently hopped off a train and is heading into town to seek a job. Unbeknownest to them, he has his own story – he just had to kill two men who wanted to get a little friendly in the wrong kind of way with him. Since he used his guitar as a weapon, he now needs employment to get another.

During the night, Marilyn Jones had a chance to put everything into perspective and realizes that the reason her son Pete is dead is because she let her husband -- his father -- rape and beat her all those years, so of course that’s all Pete knows. She is so mad at her husband that she goes and finds his fishing line and a needle, sews him between the bed sheets while he sleeps and then gets the rake to beat on him. She doesn’t kill him, but she does throw the beaten man out of her house.

Marilyn can do that because she owns majority share of the mill; it was her daddy that started up the sawmill town called Camp Rapture. So when the camp holds a meeting to determine a new constable, Marilyn decides that the best person to replace her son is Sunset. Sunset is going to need a job now and she is assumed to have had vicarious exposure to this one. Marilyn bribes the men at the meeting, and rather than be arrested for murder, Sunset finds herself the new constable with two deputies -- Clyde who had been Pete’s deputy and Hillbilly who volunteers thinking this job would be better than working at the lumber mill where its too easy to loose a digit, hand or arm, rendering guitar playing impossible.

Sunset with the help of her deputies sets up a tent on the platform left by her house and she’s in business. Of course she’s not sure what she is supposed to be doing. Pete never did talk to her much, not about being a Constable or anything else but she knows he stayed busy. “Pete was always doing something. Or doing someone. Now that I think about it, I think it was mostly the last part.” But Clyde is quite willing to educate her and Hillbilly on all sorts of matters of the job -- such as arrest techniques, as in when to appeal to human nature with the use of a slapstick and how to buffalo a guy -- or why they need to help out Sheriff Knowles, in the next town over, on Saturday nights:

“But I don’t have jurisdiction there.”

“Knowles don’t have it here,” Clyde said.

“Exactly,” Sunset said.

“No one cares because most folks don’t know about jurisdiction,” Clyde said, “Hell, they can’t even spell it. Fact is, I can’t spell it. Half the colored around here ain’t never even heard the word. You got a badge. Sheriff Knowles has a badge. That’s the sum of it. You’re the law, Sunset.”

As it turns out, Sunset does have a real case to work on. Pete Jones had a recent report about a dead baby found in the woods, but evidenced by the rich soil, it had obviously been once buried on a farm owned by the “colored man named Zendo.” Everyone knows that Zendo is the most successful farmer with the richest, darkest dirt around, so it wasn’t hard to put this together. Pete’s report stated that having known Zendo he didn’t believe he was the baby’s killer, but did assume it to be a colored baby and buried it in the colored graveyard. Sunset wondered why Pete didn’t bother to investigate nor share this startling incident with her. She decides it is worth investigating; she and her deputies begin with a meeting with Zendo and end with her and her team fighting against some very bad men over a land fraud scheme in the middle of a grasshopper infestation. And a whole lot of stuff goes on in between.

Surely, if you have not yet discovered Joe Lansdale and his mojo style -- and you are not easily offended because Mr. Lansdale does not hold back -- then this is as good as any to start with. Actually, it's perfect.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 29 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Sunset and Sawdust at

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Bibliography: (with links to

Hap Collins / Leonard Pine series:

Short Story Collections:

Written as Jack Buchanan (The Mark Stone Mia Hunter series)


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Book Marks:


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About the Author:

Joe R. LansdaleJoe R. Lansdale was born in 1951 in Gladewater, Texas. He wrote his first paid published piece at the age of 21, a non-fiction article coauthored with his mother. It won a prize for best letter article. He continued to write articles and then in the mid-seventies he began to sell fiction.

Now, with more than twenty books and 200 short stories to his credit, Lansdale is considered the champion Mojo storyteller. He’s been called "the Stephen King of Texas" by Texas Monthly; "an immense talent" by Booklist; "a born storyteller" by Robert Bloch; and The New York Times Book Review declares he has "a folklorist’s eye for telling detail and a front-porch raconteur’s sense of pace."

He’s won many awards, including five Bram Stoker horror awards, a British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Horror Critics Award, the "Shot in the Dark" International Crime Writer’s award, the Booklist Editor’s Award, the Critic’s Choice Award, and a New York Times Notable Book award. His novel, The Bottoms, won the 2001 Edgar Awards for Best Novel.

Joe Lansdale is also a martial artist for over 35 years and an Inductee into the INTERNATIONAL MARTIAL ARTS HALL OF FAME as Founder / Grandmaster of Shen Chuan and certified Ninth Degree Black Belt by the World Martial Arts Alliance. Lansdale has also been inducted into the Texas Martial Arts Hall of Fame as well, and is a multiple black belt holder.

Lansdale lives in Nacogdoches, Texas, with his wife, Karen, writer and editor. They have a son and daughter. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014