Radiant Apples, Joe R. Lansdale (Subterranean 978-1645240419, $40.00, 160pp. hc) November 2021. Cover by Ken Laager.
Two of the elements that make Joe Lansdale one of the best storytellers of our time are his ability to make a story flow with the ease of a large river after heavy rains and the way in which he mixes action, violence, and humor to deliver wildly entertaining narratives. Both of those things are in full display in Radiant Apples, a novella that continues the adventures of Nat Love as part of The True Life Adventures of Deadwood Dick as told by His Ownself series.
Nat Love has seen – and done – a lot. He’s been a Marshal under Hanging Judge Parker, a buffalo soldier, a father, and even traveled the world as part of a show. But age has caught up to him and he now wants a less stressful life, so he works as train porter. However, his old ways are never far from his mind, and when a train he’s working on gets robbed, two men die in the process: a rich passenger shot by the robbers and a robber shot by Nat. To make matters worse, he sees his youngest son is part of the Radiant Apples, the gang that robbed the train, known by that moniker thanks to the ruddy cheeks of the brothers that lead it. Seeking justice, the authorities want to track down the gang, and they hire Nat to do it based on his reputation. Nat teams up with Choctaw, a tracker with whom he’s had plenty of adventures, and the duo sets out to find the Radiant Apples and bring them to justice.
Radiant Apples is a short, fun read. Lansdale has written in Nat Love’s voice before, and he’s comfortable and familiar with it, which makes the narrative feel personal and brings Love to the page with a lot of humor and a penchant for old stories and past exploits. Love, a real Black hero from the Old West, is a legend, and Lansdale uses a mixture of fact and fiction to make him sound like one, not only here but in all Nat Love stories.
The Radiant Apples wouldn’t normally be a challenge for Nat and Choctaw, but watching a man die unnecessarily, witnessing the pain of his widow, and his own son’s involvement, all make this job feel personal to Nat. After he picks up Choctaw in Oklahoma, where he’s leading a quiet life on a farm with a woman, everything becomes about finding the gang because they’re dangerous, violent, unpredictable, and, worst of all, not too smart:
They were low level bandits that wanted to be Jesse James, but were more like headless chickens that could shoot revolvers. They usually worked grocery stores and banks in small towns, robbed people on the road. Now they were moving up to trains. They hadn’t even picked one carrying a payroll. They were completely low rent.
Lansdale has written horror, crime, and science fiction throughout his career, and one of the cohesive elements that gives his oeuvre a sense of unity is his constant attention to cultural context and history. For example, he regularly tackles the horror of racism, and Radiant Apples is no different, which fits perfectly with the historical time in which in takes place:
It was a long way to Oklahoma with the road bouncing my ass up and down, but I stayed steady, and bought gas when I could find a place to do so. Some places didn’t sell to coloreds, but there was generally a filling station of sorts, or someplace in colored sections along the way where I could freshen up my gas in the tank and in the jugs.
While violence, tension, and Nat’s heartbreak over his son being in the gang make up a large part of the narrative, the other half balances things out perfectly with healthy doses of snappy dialogue, jokes, and turns of phrase that make even threats sound funny:
We get an inkling we have been, if you will pardon the expression, railroaded, then you’re going to wish a train had run over you full of cattle and bricks, rather than have us coming back with a feeling of disappointment.
The True Life Adventures of Deadwood Dick is a superb series and Radiant Apples is a fast, fun addition to it where Nat’s voice shines and Lansdale’s storytelling skills and passion for both history and Westerns take center stage. From the tenderness with which Nat remembers his dead wife and thinks about his son to the brutality of a man impaled by a branch and another shot between the eyes, Radiant Apples delivers a balanced narrative packed with the humor, viciousness, and heart readers have come to expect from Lansdale, one of the most talented and versatile writers working today.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
This review and more like it in the November 2021 issue of Locus.
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