Novel November

Fender Lizards

by Joe R. Lansdale

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Fender Lizards by Joe R. Lansdale

You never know what you'll get with a Joe R. Lansdale book. He's written all across the genre landscape: splatter punk, thriller, mystery, western, horror, science fiction, comic books, adventure, crime. Fender Lizards adds young adult to that list. It is a simple, coming-of-age tale of a teenage girl named Dot who is growing up poor in East Texas. Her sister has a couple of kids with a couple different baby-daddies. The current one likes to use her and their kid as punching bags. Dot's dad left years ago, went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back. He left Dot with a mistrust of smokers and people in general. She has no direction and is pretty sure she'll live and die in her mom's trailer home, working as a roller skating waitress at the local burger joint, probably end up with her own set of fatherless rug rats.

Then her uncle shows up, starts living in his van in their driveway, and tells Dot maybe she's got more to offer the world than she believes.

That's the bare bones of the story. The true meat of the book is Lansdale's language and dialog. Dot is our narrator, and her voice is the authentic, made tough in Texas, tell no lies and take no guff real deal. She gives a long litany of her family history and troubles then says she'll allow the reader time to overcome his jealously. When I read that, the perfect punch line to a true-to-life list of woes, I was in awe of Lansdale's ability. Throughout the book he makes the ordinary extraordinary, dropping a bit of sarcastic poetry in all his dialog. You could say it's too good, that normal people don't talk like that, but I guarantee you the transcript of anybody's day-to-day conversation is boring as a brick wall. Give me fiction where conversations are full of snappy comebacks and everyone has an exit line.

While the dialog might be a bit hyper-realistic, the characters and situations are lightning-rod grounded in reality. Dot makes dumb decisions, people keep secrets and lie when there's no real need, and sometimes the ragtag underdogs lose.

Dot tries to improve her life but falls prey to her own stubbornness. She tries to help her sister leave her abusive boyfriend, and instead of rational discourse chooses a hefty length of two-by-four. That brash decision comes with consequences, though they play out in hilarious fashion, as usually happens in a Lansdale book. When she goes on a date, she speaks some pretty strong words to the boy, but as the new father of a baby girl, I think she makes the right call on this one, though she does make it rather bluntly. The need to find direction and personal strength leads her to convincing her fellow waitresses to form a roller derby team and challenge a traveling team for prize money. The money is secondary. Dot sees her sister, mom, and grandma as her future selves and feels she's destined to make their same mistakes then pass them on in turn to her own (probably) illegitimate progeny. She and her friends realize they've become institutionalized by small-town life, so they take on the derby challenge to prove themselves to themselves.

The sections that deal with Dot's absent father hit me the hardest. He couldn't accept or adapt to the role, so he pulled up stakes and left town. As I said, I'm a new dad, and I've been fearing for a while now that I don't know how to be a good enough father to my daughter. I come from a long line of drunkards and losers. Failure is in my DNA. So I could feel for Dot's dad. Parenting is hard. But as children like to say in times of anger, they don't ask to be born. That's actual. Your kids exist because you made them. That saddles you with the responsibility of taking care of them. Leaving, as tempting as it may be, is not an option. You made the kid, now give it the best life you possibly can.

The book does not leave that thread hanging. Dot's way of dealing with her runaway dad is brave, and the outcome is as true to real life as the rest of the story. It's a simple story told well with great dialog, enjoyable characters, and a plucky protagonist you can't help but root for. Fender Lizards may be a gentler type of book than Joe R. Lansdale is known for, but it still has that touch of mojo magic he puts into every scene. I hope my daughter will read it one day. It's perfect for young readers, especially girls looking for a heroine with real faults and true guts.

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