By Joe R. Lansdale (Mysterious Press; 1999)
A wildly profane and plain crazy concoction that reads like a deranged collaboration between Flannery O’Connor and Jim Thompson. Actually it’s pure, unadulterated Joe R. Lansdale through and through. Lansdale, for those who don’t know, is Texas’ most outrageous author, whose considerable literary output includes the bestselling Hap and Leonard crime series (SAVAGE SEASON, MUCHO MOJO, TWO BEAR MAMBO, etc.), the source material for Don Coscarelli’s cult film BUBBA HO-TEP and the legendary short story “The Night They Missed The Horror Show.” Only JRL could have come up with this novel’s completely loony conceit: a criminal on the run in the Deep South takes up with a traveling freak show bearing a frozen corpse that may or may not be the body of Jesus Christ.
Bill Roberts is quite a character: a frankly amoral scumbag who as the novel opens is living with his mother’s recently deceased corpse. This hopeless loser, finding his options at a premium after forging his mother’s signature on too many bad checks, decides to rob a fireworks stand with two fellow no-hopers. They botch the job spectacularly, leading to a nutty chase through a swamp that only Bill survives, albeit with a number of severe mosquito bites that deform his face to the point that he fits in quite well with the denizens of the aforementioned freak show.
Life in the freak show is as you’d expect: freaky. Characters include bickering pinheads, a dog man, a pumpkin head and a bearded lady. Even the show’s seemingly upstanding owner Frost has a hand growing out of his chest (a remnant of a formerly conjoined twin). But it’s Frost’s vivacious wife, Gidget, who proves to be the freakiest character of all. And don’t forget that tank with the frozen body inside it; whether it’s Jesus Christ or not, it certainly seems to have a supernatural aura…a fact not lost on Bill, who’s forced to sleep with the thing! A redemption of sorts is in order for our seemingly incorrigible protagonist, depending on how long he manages to stay alive.
At times I thought I was reading a Southern-fried rewrite of FREAKS (Lansdale even borrows its famous “One of us” line), at others an X-rated retelling of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, yet FREEZER BURN remains a stubbornly original, deeply unpredictable creation throughout. Quite simply, I was never able to predict what was coming next, and that’s a large part of what made the book such a kick.
It’s also screamingly funny. Lansdale can be goddamn hilarious when he wants to be, and this book was clearly one of those occasions. Gidget’s recounting of the unexpected death of her ex-husband (no fair revealing the details) gave me on one of the biggest laughs I’ve had in some time. And you’ll have to go a long way to find a more outrageously funny literary set-piece than Bill’s early jaunt through the swamps, which involves a number of “accidental” deaths. As you might have gathered, the humor here is of a decidedly dark variety, meaning it, like the book itself, ain’t for everybody, but if you like your comedy liberally spiced with mirth then welcome to Nirvana.
The book isn’t perfect, alas. It looses its footing toward the end, with an unexpected viewpoint shift, a somewhat inexplicable twist involving the frozen corpse and a coda that will seem all-too-familiar to connoisseurs of pulp fiction. Nothing wrong with that, but the freewheeling unpredictability of the rest of the book led me to expect something…more.