The problem with this collection is that Joe R. Lansdale is a great writer. He has such mastery of tone and style that I was convinced by almost every word he wrote in Mad Dog Summer. Convinced, but upset and irritated as well. In part, the problem is the distance between Lansdale's world view and my own; but what I really don't like about much of the work on show here is the vulgar approach Lansdale takes to his subjects.
The collection opens with "The Mule Rustlers," in which two ne'er-do-wells find an unsupervised mule and make away with it. The moment Lansdale introduces James and Elliot, we know their type and the kinds of scrapes they get into and out of. Having never read Lansdale before, I was captured by the loose, open, slightly-tall-tale style of this piece but, just as quickly, found myself as out of my depth as the protagonists, faced with a rapid escalation to multiple murder and mule death by drowning, are out of theirs. Grasping at straws, I turned back to the author introduction, to discover that the story developed from the disappearance of Lansdale's mule. Author collections like this, with an introduction to each story, are intended to provide context—to give further insight to the reader of where the author is coming from. However, like many readers, I prefer to get the story straight, and learn the details of creation or publication afterwards. This is a story which reads completely differently within that context. If I'd known this was a form of revenge, I might have recognised lightning striking the mules' iron shoes as farce. Instead, the fate of James and Elliot seemed totally out of scale with their actions.
Nor could I find my feet in the next story—"The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel." It is one of two in this collection with SF content, on this occasion a pastiche of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells cut with the cheapest of pulp horse opera. In the introduction to this piece Lansdale says that sense of wonder "is something that seems to have mostly died out in SF" (p.20), and the story appears to be an attempt on his part to prove that thesis; the sense of disgust is the only sense invoked. The pulp style tells the reader Lansdale is playing with us, but he is also hacking at the roots of the genre. Wells's Time Traveller is the villain of the piece, transformed into a gross revision of Vlad the Impaler, aided by Morlocks with names like "Asshole" who he kills as charmlessly as everything else he comes across (in every sense of the word). He is opposed by a hapless group in a giant steam-powered robot. These are the End Days, and there is no guarantee that the Dark Rider will be defeated. Even should he be, the materials of this story tell us that the world cannot be made right. There is no subtlety in the construction, much of which shows a childish delight in being able to use swear words; as a whole, the story is simply gratuitous.
It is this repeated diving into the depths of the gratuitous which makes Lansdale's writing unpalatable. The next story—"Screwup"—is a collaboration with Karen Lansdale, his wife. It has an amusing set of consequences, but each consequence is another murder. This is followed by "The Big Blow," centred on an ignorant, vicious, and self serving man. Its length gives Lansdale room to display his skill in pacing and character development, and there is even a possibility of redemption by its end, but it still focuses throughout on the gross and extreme, with no apparent intent except to disgust the reader. Then we have a short piece—"Veil's Visit"—about Hap and Leonard, who are apparently Lansdale regulars, and which is another collaboration, this time with Andrew Vachss. Each story has a distinctive voice, neatly matched to the tale, and the writing is a virtuoso performance, but there is no pleasure in the actual reading.
I can't imagine why anyone would choose to spend time reading the next story, either, although I can guess that Lansdale got a lot of entertainment out of writing it. His introduction begins by describing "Way Down There" as an "exercise in weirdness" (p.138) and concludes with the instruction "don't think too hard" (p.140). It's not a good sign when the author is telling you how to read his story. The ideas used to build the story are all good fun—combining Dante's Inferno with every Hollow Earth story from Edgar Allen Poe to Howard Waldrop and mixing in some daft superheroes. However, the key ingredient in this mix is the silly voice used to tell the story. If you think 50 pages in a bizarre style is a good idea, you'll probably find this story a riot. I'm afraid "Way Down There" is a joke I didn't get.
In the last two items, by contrast, Lansdale plays things dead straight, with affection for his characters and an outlook which holds as much hope as pain. "O'Reta: Snapshot Memories" is a memoir of Joe R. Lansdale's mother, touching on a little other family history too. Talking about his relationship with her, the tale says as much about Joe as it does his mother. Having seen how good our author is at taking on other guises, I am a little wary of whether this representation of his upbringing is reliable, but I wanted to believe it and I warmed to him as a person. Perhaps it is only the security of such a childhood which allows him to delve into the nastiness found in so many of the other stories—but it struck me as strange that he writes stories with no obvious moral compass at all.
In a sense, the whole book has been building up to the title story, and it is excellent. Again, the tone of the writing is pitch perfect, the pacing is wonderful, and the subject is grim. "Mad Dog Summer" is a serial killer story told as a recollection of long ago by an old man in a nursing home. This framing is an effective device for feeding the reader details, as the majority of the story is an exposition on life in 1930s rural Texas. The wide-spread racism of the times is presented more subtly than in "The Big Blow," but just as effectively. Gradually, the murders come into focus, and the plot accelerates, without the writing ever losing the sense of detail. There is also a clear sense of right and wrong—perhaps using his parents' generation as protagonists enables the author to write with such a sense. This is my ultimate difficulty with much of this book—it refuses the existence of absolutes, allowing that anything could be morally defensible. We know, out here in the real world, that there are things which are never acceptable. Too many of these stories are not bound by any rules at all, which robs them of internal meaning, and of the ability to have an impact beyond their own idle imaginings. As a result, Mad Dog Summer ends up being no more than a self-indulgent masquerade of unpleasantness.