First, a word about the introduction by Lansdale himself––a backstage pass to Mr. Lansdale’s writing method and history of The Magic Wagon. There’s a chance I liked it so much because we happen to have the same view on what makes a story and how to have fun writing and how pantsing (for us) is what keeps the fun going. The discovery as we write. Personally, it was like a nice little validation from the man himself that there ain’t nothing wrong with writing words down and just letting them take you wherever.
Second, a word about westerns. I’ve never read one. My past with westerns stretches about as far as most people, I suppose: Films like Tombstone and Young Guns, maybe an Eastwood film in the mix somewhere. That’s it. I know there are usually horses involved, maybe some whiskey and a whole lot of dirt, campfires and using your elbow as a pillow under star-filled skies. But while I’m only as familiar with the genre as I am operating a motorcycle (I know you use your feet as well as your hands to slow it down and speed it up), I’m familiar enough with Lansdale’s work to know I could trust him to put me on a horse and kick around some dirt and that I’d enjoy every bit of it. I wasn’t wrong.
The Magic Wagon is a first-person account of a 17-year-old boy in East Texas and how he ended up with a traveling sideshow, riding alongside a chimpanzee used for wrestling drunken men, a colored man with the everyday struggle of oppression by whites down every trail, and a corpse in a box that’s rumored to be that of legend Wild Bill Hickok–-–for exploitative purposes only. Add some snake oil “Cure-All” and you’ve got yourself an attraction that’s ready to pocket the hard-earned dimes of every town in Texas. And as a bonus, after the main event we get a short story and a nice little afterward written by Lansdale’s son.
Through and through, this is pure Lansdale and a pleasurable, quick read. When Joe talks in the introduction about writing without a firm idea of where he’s going, you can feel that in this story. There were times when I felt like neither one of us knew what was coming next, but every bit of it tied together real nice by the end, and that’s why so far this is probably my favorite Lansdale read other than The Drive-In.
A coming-of-age tale not just for the westerners, but those like myself who don’t know the first thing about gunslinging. Those who just enjoy a good story, particularly ones about creating your own curse and spending your life trying to run from it and how eventually it’ll catch up to you. No matter how fast your draw is.