“The Thicket” By Joe R. Lansdale© 2013, Mulholland Books, $26, 352 pages
“The Thicket”

By Joe R. Lansdale© 2013, Mulholland Books, $26, 352 pages

You know who your friends are.

They are the ones who keep your secrets or your car keys when you need them to. They will loan you five minutes or five dollars, tell you when your ideas are good and your breath is bad and can be counted on, but never out. You would like to think they would even take a bullet for you but, as in the new novel, "The Thicket," by Joe R. Lansdale, you hope you will never have to know.

It all started with the pox.

Right after Jack Parker and his grandpa finished burying Jack's ma and pa, who died from the disease, Grandpa decided that Jack and his little sister, Lula, would be better off in Kansas City with their Aunt Tessle. And that might have been true. They would never know because, while crossing the Sabine River, they were attacked by bandits and Lula was kidnapped.

His grandpa dead, his sister gone, 17-year-old Jack ended up in a nearby town where he hoped to find the law. Instead, he found a dead sheriff, a black boar hog with tusks and a tall Negro man who was commencing to bury the aftermath of mob justice. The man introduced himself as Eustace. He told Jack that he was a tracker and could help him find the men that took Lula - but it would not come cheap and he would not do it unless they could "get Shorty to sign up."

With the hog tagging alongside, Eustace takes Jack down a "rabbit path" to meet with Shorty. As they near Shorty's home, Jack saw a child peering through a telescope. It took him a minute to understand that he was not meeting with a child. He was meeting with a dwarf.

Eustace seemed a little unstable. Shorty seemed to want to kill, but Jack was a Parker and that was not how Parkers did things. He did not want violence or bloodshed. He did not want any trouble at all really. He only wanted his sister back.

And he would learn quick enough what it would take to get her.

Let us say you planned to write a story set about 1916 in Texas. Borrow a little from "The Wizard of Oz," a little Mark Twain and make a nod toward classic western literature. Add humor, some savagery and remove just about everything "PC" - and you might come close to the perfection that is "The Thicket."

Actually, scratch that. Do not even try. Nobody does a modern-western novel like author Joe R. Lansdale.

And that is good because you will not find any fully-stereotypical "western" characters in a Lansdale novel. You will find the gunslinger, a prostitute and a man-boy who grows up fast, yes, but they do not do things the way they do in other westerns. You will find them in shocking situations of cruelty and violence with rays of goodness and surprising playfulness, and it works. It works wonderfully.

If you are in the mood for something down-and-dirty but oh-so-enjoyable, here is your book. Read "The Thicket" and then loan it out carefully.

You know who your friends are.