being freezer burned by Lansdale

I recently finished reading Freezer Burn by Joe R. Lansdale. You can read my review of the book here.

I want to use this space to go into why the ending of the book felt like a cheat. If you haven’t read the book then I suggest you don’t read the following as there is no way I can talk about this without spoiling the end of the novel.

As I said in the review, I haven’t read any of Lansdale’s work before, but I was expecting something worthwhile because of his excellent reputation. I wasn’t disappointed – for the majority of the book. Lansdale is an excellent writer. Not only does he develop interesting, and flawed characters, but his writing is a joy: economical and evocative with a wry sense of humour. I admire his skill with words.

From the first paragraph Lansdale nails the main character, Bill Roberts, and hooks the reader into the story with a dilemma:

Bill Roberts decided to rob the firecracker stand on account he didn’t have a job and not a nickel’s worth of money and his mother was dead and kind of freeze-dried in her bedroom.

Bill, the central character of the story, is flat-out unlikeable at the beginning. I appreciate the challenge this poses a writer. Lansdale circumvents this problem by keeping the reader engaged via his impeccable storytelling, and sparking interest in what is going to happen to this hapless, prejudiced, idiot. Under the influence of John Frost, and the other “freaks” at the travelling show who come to his aid, Bill is transformed. He exbibits signs that a decent human being is hiding underneath the mire.

It’s not done quickly, or dusted with Hallmark saccharine, but it evolves with the story. The reader begins to like Bill a little bit more, because his change reflects a hope in all of us: that each person can improve his or her outlook in life if given the right circumstances.

Yet, he has a weakness: Gidget, the hot blond wife of John Frost, who lures and manipulates him away from a potential life of friendship and dignity. Bill realises what he’s doing, but the force of his past pull at him like weights:

Until Frost, Bill had felt there was just him as he was. There were no sides to it. Good and Bad weren’t real to him. They were words. Now he felt he had seen some light and had liked it. Frost had shone the light on him. Frost had believed in him. And now he had a friend, Conrad, and the light was brighter yet.

Then along came Gidget, dragging shadow, looking like, tasting like, some calorie-filled confection, and he had tasted her, and he had felt as Adam must have felt when he bit into the apple. Light going out. Dirt giving way beneath his feet, grabbing at roots and vines that wouldn’t hold.

At this point the reader is rooting for Bill, because everyone knows what it’s like to experience temptation, and it obvious he is capable of leading a better life.

But he succumbs to Gidget’s assessment: “I like the way you look. You’re kind of cheap and not too smart and probably rotten to the core, just like me. We deserve one another.” Bill doesn’t have a history of making difficult choices; he’s only experienced taking the easy, or lazy, option. He agrees to help murder Gidget’s husband in a car accident. It is only in his final moments that Bill realises Gidget has been playing him the whole time. Not only does Frost die in the accident, but so does Bill.

This is a major problem for the story. While it is not written in first person, it’s written in a very focused third person, from Bill’s point of view. It suddenly switches so the last three chapters are written in the same manner, but from Gidget’s point of view.

This is a wrench the reader finds uncomfortable, and unsatisfying. Perhaps if Lansdale had previously switched from Bill’s point of view to Gidget’s at earlier points in the novel it might be acceptable. Instead it looks as if the author is trying to pretend this change in point of view does not matter to the story, and continues because that’s the ending he wanted. The final chapters feel forced and artificial.

Yes, the story ends on a downer, but I expected Bill was going to come to a bad end once he took that wrench from Gidget.

The story really ends once Bill dies; it is the death of hope. The last three chapters detail information about a character the reader doesn’t like, and who has seen the least development in the novel. Gidget’s the archetypal cold-hearted temptress, and that’s all Lansdale wants the reader to know about her. So, the final chapters feel tacked on, and the reader is left with a sense of being cheated and misdirected. An author can pull off this kind of change as long as it is signalled in some manner to the reader beforehand.

It’s a pity, since Lansdale is such a fine writer, and Freezer Burn takes chances and digs into difficult and un-PC territories. Lansdale doesn’t mind portraying the kind of people we prefer to pass in the street without looking in the eye. That takes guts, and he has the writing skills to carry it off; mostly.

I’ll be reading more of his work in the future. I can learn a great deal from such a talented writer.