So I Lately Finished Reading Savage Season

Joe R. Lansdale keeps getting described as Texas’ answer to Stephen King, and both men seem to pull from some of the same wells of influence, chiefly old comic books and monster movies and such.  But fact of the matter is, Joe Lansdale outstrips King by a couple of country miles when it comes to outright no-fooling weirdness.  And King fans will know that’s saying something, because the man from Maine once wrote a book where a bunch of thirteen-year-olds manage to beat a Lovecraftian clown demon by having a gang-bang in a sewer.  But hell, Lansdale wrote a story about Godzilla trying to get clean of his city-wrecking addiction through a twelve-step program, and another about an old man who believes he’s Elvis Presley teaming up with an old man who believes he’s JFK to stop a mummy who’s been eating the souls of their fellow nursing home residents, and another about Huck Finn and Jim venturing out to a magic island where Brer Fox had taken to worshipping Cthulhu, and only a well-timed atomic bomb managed to prevent that anthropomorphic fox from unleashing unholy hell by opening the way for the Outer Gods to come back into this world.  I’ve heard it from the man’s own lips that for a chunk of his career his writing was fueled by the apparently hallucinogenic effects of eating popcorn cooked with lard while watching B movies, which apparently causes strange and unwholesome dreams.  Doesn’t take much reading of his work to believe it’s true.

Hard to help getting weird when you’re rooted in that East Texas soil where Lansdale hails from, though.  I’ve been through that country, and it’s got all those thick woods and marshy bottoms and far, far too many water snakes for me to tolerate.  I tend to regard East Texas as the buffer zone that creates a comfortable distance between me and the festering swamps of Louisiana.  Lansdale calls it home, though, and it’s the setting for much of his work, and I can’t argue any with success.

I wanted to lead off with talk of Lansdale’s weirdness in order to set up the proposition that his Hap and Leonard series of crime novels is, from my reading of his oeuvre, probably the most mainstream stuff he’s got on the market.  It’s all in East Texas, and reflects Lansdale’s passion for martial arts and drive-in theaters and dogs, and his inimitable sense of humor, but it’s grounded and wrapped round a thrilling yarn about guns and stolen money and women you ought not trust, in fine hardboiled style, and done in a straightforward enough manner that I can imagine my grandmother reading it, which sets it well apart from much of the man’s output.  Reading it, it struck me first off that it was an outrage that this hadn’t been turned into a TV series, especially with Justified doing so well.

There’s a few things you absolutely need for a good crime novel, especially one that you’d like to have sell well and bring forth sequels.  First and foremost, I reckon, is the possession of an eye for detail and an ear for language.  Dashiell Hammett, for instance, honed both to razors in his time as a private detective, so that any one of his books you happen to read aloud to a police sketch artist will produce some first-rate wanted posters.  Raymond Chandler maybe was a hair less precise, but he painted in some more vibrant colors and made sure you could feel the truth of every place and person he wrote, feel it deep inside your gut.  Most crime authors don’t have it quite so much, which is why I find a lot of the time reading a paperback thriller seems a lot like chewing cardboard, and you’re better off just waiting for the movie starring Ashley Judd to show up on cable.

Lansdale has it.  He’s got an ear for dialect, in both dialogue and narration, that puts me in mind of old Mister Twain as much as anyone else.  Of course, making that comparison came easy when I reflected on the fact that this here was a story of a couple of friends, one white and one black, entering a river and getting into a whole heap of trouble.

Our heroes don’t really have that much in common with Huck and Jim, though, aside from them being a seemingly mismatched pair of outsiders.  They’re a study in opposites right down the line.  Hap’s white, Leonard’s black.  Leonard’s gay, Hap’s a fool for women.  Hap spent eighteen months in Leavenworth for refusing to go to Vietnam, while Leonard went and picked up some medals and memories he doesn’t talk about.  Leonard is level-headed, and Hap goes and gets them both balls-deep in trouble when he really, really should have known better.  The odd couple routine is, of course, a classic of the genre going back to when E. A. Poe invented it, or when Doyle reworked Poe’s characters into more iconic shapes and sort of invented the modern franchise.  Jonathan Kellerman’s gotten a lot of mileage out of the gay guy/straight guy crimefighting duo over the years, in particular.  But while it’s an old tune, it’s particularly well-played here.  Partly because these guys aren’t a crime-fighting team of any sort, they’re just a couple of middle-aged blue collar Texans getting by in life, but mainly because of how lived-in their friendship feels.  Lansdale pulls off the neat sleight-of-hand trick of selling on the idea that these are just two real people who happen to get caught up in a bad mess, rather than a duo created specifically to star in this adventure and several more to follow.

Then there’s the way the plot roots itself deep into the nature of time and the place the characters are living in, it being a tale of faded middle-aged radicals trying to resurrect their glories days from the sixties with a lost cache of heisted money on a river-bottom.  It’s also deep-rooted into the characters themselves, principally Hap, who’s the one telling this tale.  Stolen cash and double crosses aside, this here is mostly a story about a man getting dragged back to confront his own history, both metaphorically (Hap’s a cynical ex-activist who finds himself stuck in a small house with a bunch of guys who haven’t let go of the ideological fervor they maintained during the Vietnam years) and literally (he’s brought into this business, and brings Leonard into it against the latter’s better judgement, because the maguffin is located somewhere around the places he knew as a boy).

With all this talk of character and theme and whatnot, let’s not lose sight of the red meat that a good hardboiled crime yarn needs.  Guns get pointed every which way, Chekhov’s Dog is guaranteed to bite, there’s some brutal shovel work, and at least one fierce kick to the head.  It’s served up lean, and served up mean, and does not disappoint.

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