Last year I made a disturbing discovering about author Joe Lansdale…he’s written a lot of wonderful books and I’d never heard of him.
First I read one of Lansdale’s stand-alone thrillers, Leather Maiden. I liked it. But then I discovered that he’d written an entire series featuring two characters: Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Anyway, I read and reviewed the second novel in the series Mucho Mojo for www.mostlyfiction.com Then I read and reviewed Vanilla Ride and even managed to cop an interview with Lansdale at the same time.
So why was discovering Lansdale disturbing? I read a lot of books and yet I hadn’t heard about this author. It’s at times like this I wonder what I am doing wrong. Is my book antenna out-of-order? How many other great books are slipping by unnoticed? But then I discovered something else…Lansdale wrote the short story that became the weird and wonderful film Bubba Ho Tep, and I love that film. Things were beginning to fall into place…and I knew it was my mission to read all the Hap and Leonard novels in the series. This brings me to the first book in the series, Savage Season.
If there are any other people out there who haven’t yet heard a thing about Hap & Leonard, here’s the run-d0wn: Hap Collins & Leonard Pine are friends who live in East Texas. These are men who are products of their environment, yet not in the way we would normally assume. Surrounded by rednecks and racism, Hap and Leonard rise above the negative aspects of their environment and appear to mentally thrive because of it. While the two aren’t exactly itinerants, they don’t pursue ‘the American Dream’ of a house in suburbia. Their close friendship substitutes for other familial relationships, and they are content to scrape a living at menial jobs as field hands or day labourers.
Hap Collins, the narrator, is white and straight. He was part of the 60s counter-culture and served time in prison for refusing to go to Vietnam. Leonard, on the other hand, is a black, gay, Vietnam veteran. And while that brief cliched description may lead to the conclusion that they have little in common, the two men the best of friends. Sometimes they seem to be blood-brothers; at other times they even seem like an old married couple, and then there are times that they are a couple of unemployed comedians.
Hap & Leonard are a throw-back to the cowboy days. They operate outside of the law–which is just as well since most of the lawmen in their neck of the woods are as rotten as rancid bacon. And they also become embroiled in situations involving friends (Vanilla Ride) and ex-lovers (Savage Season).
Any novel series needs to create characters that we want to return to…again and again, and this is most certainly the case with Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard. These two men are great fun to hang out with for 200-300 pages. This is the third book I’ve read and I really can’t wait to read more. But I’m not going to be a piggy and read them all at once. I’m going to dole them out to myself over time–perhaps as an antidote to reading something I didn’t enjoy.
In Savage Season, Hap & Leonard are enjoying a pleasant afternoon shooting clay pigeons when Hap’s ex-wife Trudy shows up. Leonard, who can’t stand Trudy, makes a quick exit, and that leaves Hap alone with his barracuda ex. After giving Hap a song & dance about how much she misses him, they have sex and then Trudy reveals the real reason for her visit. She needs Hap’s help….
Trudy tells Hap a convoluted tale about yet another ex-husband, a bank job gone wrong, & stolen money which may be hidden in the depths of the nearby Marvel Creek. Trudy wants Hap’s help to get the money out of the river, and she promises him a share of the money. Leonard goes along with the plan, not trusting Trudy but he’s there mainly to watch Hap’s back.
Aging hippie Trudy is part of an ad-hoc group of misfits who intend to use their share of the loot for some sort of subversive activity. The group is composed of ex-husband Howard, Chub, the privileged outcast son of a wealthy elite family, and the mysterious Paco–a man whose face appears to have melted off. The plan is that Hap and Leonard will do the dirty work and dive down into the icy depths of the Marvel Creek, retrieve the money and then split it with the others. But of course the plan goes horribly wrong….
This is a lean, fast-paced tale that establishes the roots of the unique relationship between Hap & Leonard. In Savage Season, it feels as though Lansdale is just becoming acquainted with these new characters, and the humour, wild and profane in Mucho Mojo and Vanilla Ride is present here, but muted and definitely toned down in comparison. This is an appropriate beginning for the East Texas pair as Lansdale excavates Hap’s past through his troubled relationship with Trudy. Trudy and Hap once wanted to make a ‘difference’ in the world, and in Hap’s case that idea fizzled after a taste of prison, and he realized that he “didn’t want to help the underprivileged anymore” as he “was one of them.” Trudy, on the other hand, has remained on the fringes of society, flailing around looking for causes to define who she is. The loot represents another chance at life, an opportunity to make up for lost moments:
“He lifted out a long aluminum canister cracked in the middle. We all looked at it. I felt as if I had suddenly been filled with molten lava, that a little ice had gone out of my soul. Lost years were on the verge of being regained. Possibilities went through me, grew heads like a Hydra. The fact that this money might be partially mine for the taking, that it was stolen and illegal, filled me simultaneously with ecstasy and guilt, like I’d have felt if my mother had ever caught me jacking off to a girlfriend’s picture.”
Of the three Lansdale Hap & Leonard novels I’ve read so far, this one is my least favourite, and while it’s weak in comparison, it’s still a damn good read. First series novels are often the weakest as the characters are established. Later novels are stronger as much loved characters mature, their lives develop and we become even fonder of them. Personally I missed all the swearing and the humour that peppered the pages of Vanilla Ride and Mucho Mojo, but then again, Lansdale is just flexing here.