Novel November

Cold in July

by Joe R. Lansdale


Reading Review by Michael Channing

Cold in July by Joe R. Lansdale

Without giving anything away, I can say this book is about fathers and sons. How badly can a father fail before his son follows his path to ruin? And if the son is heir to the father's sins, how responsible is the father for the monster he creates? At what point is the father required to make amends for the deeds of his offspring?

The book starts by asking a question I'm sure we can all agree on: is a father responsible for his family's safety? That's a yes, right? Everybody put down “yes” for number one? The next question is a bit more tricky and open ended. What if that dad has to do something he finds morally questionable to safeguard his family? In chapter one, Richard Dane is awakened by a sound in the dead of night. He takes his gun from the nightstand and goes to the living room and comes face to face with a burglar breaking into his home. They both raise their guns and fire. The burglar misses. Dane does not. No one would fault Dane for killing the guy, and he knows he did the just thing. What if his son had gotten up for a drink of milk and stumbled into the trigger-happy thief? Still, he can’t shake the guilt. He took another human life, something he had always viewed as wrong.

The book slows down to let Dane and the reader contemplate the repercussions of the break-in and the shooting. We get a lot of details about how his employees react to him, what the town thinks of him, how he goes about repairing and fortifying his home now that its safety had been compromised. This happens a few times in the novel: the narrative focuses on everyday trivialities as the characters try to impose normalcy on situations that are growing more and more unhinged. What happens, instead, is the bizarre becomes the norm. The message is pretty clear: your safe, simple life can become complicated and dangerous at any time.

Some things happen after the shooting. I cannot in good conscience reveal many of them. There are plot twists. There are secrets. If you've read this book, you're nodding right now and mumbling, “You're damn right,” under your breath. I'm not going to give away any secrets, but even knowing them doesn't diminish this book's pleasures. When I first read it in my twenties, it was a rollicking good ride. It's still that now, but as a new father with a new father's fears, the book is heavier, more meaningful. Richard Dane has his first taste of doubt after he shoots the burglar. The more he broods on the subject, the more he comes to realize he actually enjoyed snuffing the guy out. Just a little. But he meets a distasteful neighbor with a grotesque interest in the killing and naked blood lust in his heart. Hints of what he could become? That would be bad enough, but then he comes face to face with the burglar's father.

He gets a direct view at a father who has failed. How easy is it, he wonders, to slide into that pit? And, since children do as they see, can the son’s life of crime be pinned on his father? Is the father responsible for the son’s misdeeds? Is he required to make amends? Cold in July takes these questions to extremes, but even on a middling level, I’m grasping with them myself. That’s what made this book resonate with me in a whole new way. Did I inherit my own failings and inadequacies from my father? Am I doomed to pass them along to my daughter? Looking far into the future and imagining what I hate to consider, will what I do (or fail to do) now cause her to stumble beyond recovery? If I am the flawed product of a flawed father, what hope do I have of being a better man than he?

When it comes to plot, Lansdale takes us (and the characters) slowly down a darkening path. The story takes its time, which allows life to go on between dramatic events. The characters make difficult choices, but their decisions never feel forced. In one scene, Dane informs his wife of a decision he made that feels right but has the potential to jeopardize his family. She reacts in just the way you expect. It must have been a difficult scene to write, one that rings true to life but must lead to an outcome that will allow the plot to continue. I felt like a student at the end of that scene, in awe of the master and jealous of his skill.

We all come from imperfect fathers. Some have slid beyond imperfect and have become damaged. One of the lessons of this book is, yes there is a land of no hope to which a broken moral compass can lead us, but we can change course. Dane attempts to avoid the traps that ensnared his own dad and helps another to undo some of the damage he wrought by being a terrible father. There are exits out of our parenting duties. There is temptation to stray. But there is also salvation. And the best fathers are not necessarily the ones we are born to.

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