At its surface Joe R. Lansdale’s novel The Bottoms shares parallels with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: its narrator looks back onto a southern childhood during the Depression — the setting is East Texas, rather than Alabama; the narrator is witness to the injustices of racial prejudice; the novel has an enigmatic figure like Boo Radley, known as the Goat Man; and the novel’s narrative voice is that of precocious curious preteen Harry Crane.
When Harry and his younger sister Tom (Thomasina) discover the horribly mutilated body of a black woman in the bottom land of the Sabine River, they uncover more than a murder. They uncoil the not-so-hidden racism and racial injustice lurking in their small town, a set of beliefs and attitudes as dangerous and poisonous as the cottomouths that slither in the river. They also get caught up in hunting down the Goat Man, a half-goat, half-man rumored to lurk along the river’s banks.
Investigating the murder — which turns into an investigation of serial murder — is constable Jacob Crane, Harry and Tom’s father. Much like Atticus Finch, Jacob takes up the investigation of the multiple murders of black women to the consternation of the whites in the town, many of whom overtly try to discourage the investigation, simply because the victims are black. Jacob is harassed by the Klan; and is unable to prevent a black man — at first a suspect — from dying at the hands of a lynch mob.
Where Jacob differs from Atticus, is that Jacob is aware of his own innate racial prejudice: it’s what leads him to suspect and arrest the black man Mose, who later gets lynched, on thin circumstantial evidence. Jacob is like Atticus, who Jane Smiley notes doesn’t “have the will to break up the status quo and reimagine American life as socially, culturally, and politically as well as legally egalitarian.”
Atticus, to some extent, is always too virtuous, too stand-up of a guy, to see his fight is caught up in a failure, as Smiley notes, to question social forms. Jacob redeems himself somewhat by taking action beyond recognizing the injustices: he brutally beats the lynch mob’s leader with an axe handle, but only after a white woman turns up murdered after Mose is murdered.
The novel is an excellent portrait of the time it represents, and the voice of Harry is engaging. It reveals the innate racism that still seems to infiltrate the American mind. It’s also an wonderful portrait of a family, warts and all. Plus, it has a Goat Man (sort of).