Heart and claw

Joe Lansdale's Hap and Leonard act out
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  August 25, 2009

STICKIN' IT TO THE MAN Lansdale's made Hap and Leonard two diehard smart-asses.

Vanilla Ride | By Joe R. Lansdale | Knopf | 243 pages | $24.95
Can a writer have his heart in the right place while verging perilously close to heartlessness? Texas novelist Joe R. Lansdale's "Hap and Leonard" series — the new Vanilla Ride is its seventh — is the story of a soul-deep, interracial gay-straight friendship, and an excuse for some of the most brutal, graphic violence ever put between hard-boiled covers.

You could argue that only a writer who feels the weight and the awfulness of violence would write about it so unsparingly. Or you could conclude that Lansdale — a writer blessed with the twin gifts of being one hell of a storyteller and making you care at once about his characters — has too much invested in the conventions of tough-guy fiction. Lansdale can go so far that the violence throws you out of the story, breaking the bond he's forged. But then he's so adept at providing a good time that he can also win you back.

Hap and Leonard are blue-collar workers who subsist from job to job and who get ensnared, often reluctantly, into helping out good people who get into bad trouble. In Vanilla Ride, it's an ex-cop whose granddaughter has fallen in with an abusive drug dealer. Rescuing the girl means that they wind up pissing off the Memphis mafia and working for the feds to locate the missing son of a gangland informant.

All the "Hap and Leonard" novels (Vintage's Black Lizard imprint, bless its twisted heart, is in the midst of reprinting the entire series) explore the contradictions at work in an enduring friendship. And Lansdale flips what you'd think would be their respective attitudes. Leonard — black and openly gay and therefore the member of two persecuted groups — is quick to call out any racist or homophobe, but his approach to bad guys is what you'd expect from a right-winger: he thinks there are people in the world who need to be killed. He could be summed up by the Christmas Eve celebration that opens The Two-Bear Mambo (1995): he welcomes the Savior's birth by blasting the Kentucky Headhunters' "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" as he burns the crack house next door to the ground.

Leonard is as proud of being a Vietnam vet as Hap is unapologetic for having gone to prison for refusing induction. An East Texas white boy, Hap first garnered outsider status by growing his hair long in the '60s and marching against the war. He's an instinctive liberal, always trying to find some solution that doesn't involve violence (though he's willing to dish out his share if the situation demands). In some ways, he makes a rotten Texan: Leonard is the one who gets him to appreciate country music.

What the pair have in common is that they're diehard smart-asses, and their back-and-forth in the face of any authority that threatens them makes for the book's highlights. And Lansdale is prodigiously profane, happily scatological. In one installment, Hap and Leonard come across a geezer digging up the sewage trench in his front yard. Got drunk the night before, he explains, and vomited his dentures down the toilet.

This is the right time for these novels to be making a reappearance. They depict the crossing of boundary and gender lines, and they're dedicated to an equality we associate with being a good liberal, even as they scoff at the idea that we're in a post-racial society. Neither a condemnation of the South nor a fantasy of its benevolence, Lansdale's "Hap and Leonard" series is bloody pulp slapstick where the lumps on the noggin equal the nicks to the heart.

Related: Don't shoot!, Off the press!, Finding a voice, More more >
  Topics: Books , Davy Crockett
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