A Fine Dark Line

Written by Joe R. Lansdale
Review by Steve Lewis

On page 7, thirteen-year-old Stanley Mitchel learns there is no Santa Claus, and he doesn’t like it. He ‘feels like a donkey’s ass.’ He doesn’t know what else will occur during the summer of 1958, but in the hands of Edgar-winning author Lansdale, it’s pure magic.

More happens to Stanley and his family that summer than occurs to most people in twice their lifetime. Finding a metal box filled with letters triggers a seismographic sequence of events, eventually taking the inhabitants of the East Texas town of Dewmont across an unseen line separating black mystery from reality.

The boom times spawned by the end of World War II had not yet reached the surrounding countryside, and when Stanley’s father uproots his family to the city, they make their new home inside the huge screen of the drive-in theater he now owns.

It’s the innocent age of Dairy Queens and rock-and-roll, back when the black population knew their place, and the white population kept them there. But aiding young Stanley with his investigation of the letters, and the two girls who were killed (murdered?) on the same night 25 years earlier, is Buster, the aged black projectionist, and Stanley’s ad hoc mentor through his passage out of childhood.

It’s an education, all right. The lynching of black men happened not much earlier, and minstrel shows were still common, but to Stanley and his family, the entertainment value seems to diminish before their eyes. Stanley’s sixteen-year-old sister is growing up as well, and her explanation of certain aspects of life opens up wide new horizons for him.

It’s a remarkable trip, told by a master of words and nostalgic journeys, and it’s never a smooth one. Life never is, and this is art, imitating life.