‘Moon Lake’ (2021) by Joe R. Lansdale

My main impression of ‘Moon Lake’ was formed by the dissonance between the content and the storytelling style that kept knocking me off balance and held me at arms-length from the emotions in the book.

At the start, I thought I was heading towards a Southern Gothic tale like ‘The Elementals’. The opening paragraph was:

“My name is Daniel Russel. I dream of dark water.”

How gothic is that?

Then we get:

“My first memory of Moon Lake was as a youngster, on a dark night in October 1968 with the nearly full moon seeming to float on the surface of the water. I remember its glow and the way the shadows of the trees on the side of the lake reached out for it like chocolate fingers groping for a silver platter.”

Well, that’s atmospheric even if the simile is a little odd.

The next paragraph sounds another gothic note as we find young Danny in a potentially scary situation:

“Me and my dad were parked on a long, narrow bridge that went over the lake. The bridge was made of rusty metal and cables and rotting wood. not to mention a few lost dreams, for the town beneath the water had been flooded and the great lake was supposed to be the new town’s savior. People were expected to come from miles around to picnic on its shores and fish its depths.

They didn’t. At least not enough of them.”

That last line should have been my warning that this story’s style wasn’t going to be the one I’d expected. That comment doesn’t belong to Danny the fourteen-year-old boy, on a bridge in the dark who is wondering why he’s there and what his father is going to do next. It belongs to the older Daniel, a novelist and reporter with a penchant for editorialising.

What happens next is dramatic and unexpected and lived up to all my gothic expectations BUT, as soon as the action is over and Danny is recovering, we get back to the storytelling style that persists throughout the novel. The adult Daniel who is telling the tale, gave me the impression of a man sitting comfortably in an armchair, relating events that shaped his life once upon a time but which are now just another part of who he used to be. The tone seemed to me to be that of a folksy tall-tale but with ragged, discordant edges, spiked with vulgarity and sarcastic hits against the taken-for-granted white supremacy of South East Texas where the spirit of Jim Crow still cruised the streets in the cars of respectable white people.

I was almost able to immerse myself in Danny Russel’s childhood experience in the months after the incident of the bridge but the writing style didn’t allow it. A hatred of white supremacy and a suspicion of white authority figures sat just beneath the surface of the almost Huck Finn style first-person account like razor blades in ice cream. It meant that, as a reader, I knew I couldn’t relax, even when good things were happening because worse things were on their way and they were already casting a shadow. Part One of the book felt like an exercise in protracted dissonance.

The tone changed in Part Two when the narrative lept forward a decade and Daniel Russel returns to Moon Lake because his father’s remains have been found. The plot turned firmly in the direction of Daniel Russel, investigative journalist, takes on the powers that be and Daniel’s too-progressive-for-South-East-Texas-in-the-Seventies politics fit more comfortably with the content of the story.

The pace of the story remained what might be politely called unhurried but I soon found myself bound up in the story of a small town dominated by a small, self-appointed, Council. They and their crimes were larger than life and I enjoyed seeing Daniel piece it all together.

Even so, there was something off about the style. Normally, I’d expect a first-person account of tales of intrigue, discovery and violence, to give a sense of immediacy and involvement in the action. This first-person account had a late-nineteenth-century folksy raconteur tone that adds a fire-side chat feel to the storytelling that reminded me of Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby The Scrivener’ only updated to be more vulgar and sprinkled with similes that tried too hard.

Even when I was watching Daniel fighting for his life against the bad guys, I never felt any real sense of danger.

The book ends with the same two sentences that opened it:

“My name is Daniel Russel. I dream of dark water.”

but by then I had difficulty seeing Daniel as a man who had too firm a hold on his emotions to be much troubled by anything, including dreams.

I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Moon Lake’. Jason Culp does a good job of capturing Daniel Russel’s tone. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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