BOOKS: Joe R. Lansdale
I had never read any Joe R. Lansdale before two weeks ago, and brother, have I been missing out.
Actually, that's a lie. I've read his comic book collaborations with artist Timothy Truman, of whom I was a fan from such books as Grimjack and Scout. Their works together have included a Lone Ranger and Tonto mini-series, and three Jonah Hex mini-series (one of which got them sued by Johnny and Edgar Winters).
I greatly enjoyed the Old West as portrayed in these comics. This wasn't the cleaned-up Old West of John Wayne films, nor even the somewhat darker version in more recent, "revisionist" Westerns such as Unforgiven or Tombstone. This was closer to Sergio Leone's classic Spaghetti Westerns, where dirty people had ugly teeth and uglier morals. Of course I loved the art, but the writing was also fantastic, and while I may have been aware that Joe Lansdale was a well-established novelist, I didn't bother seeking out any of his other books.
That was a mistake, which I have at long last remedied, by reading Lansdale's Bad Chili and The Magic Wagon back-to-back.
Bad Chili is the fourth in a series (up to six, so far) of crime novels featuring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. (Why did I start with the fourth? Only one my liberry had.) Hap is a down-on-his-luck, '60s agitator turned offshore oil rigger, and his best friend Leonard is a gay black Vietnam veteran, too surly to even keep his bouncing job. And, to give you a feel for the tone of this book, when we meet them in the first chapter, Hap gets savaged by a rabid squirrel:
We broke and ran. The squirrel, however, was not a quitter. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw that it was in fact gaining on us, and Leonard's cussing was having absolutely no effect, other than to perhaps further enrage the animal, who might have had Baptist leanings.Probably the best way to describe this book and its flavor, the blurbiest way, is "Elmore Leonard in East Texas." Or Carl Hiaasen, or Tim Dorsey, or whichever of that Florida crime novel cadre you want to use. Bad Chili isn't a detective novel, nor an adventure story, nor really a typical crime novel. Its cover describes it as a "novel of suspense", but that still doesn't quite get it right. It simply is what it is, which mostly involves weird and dangerous things happening to two good ol' boys.
As with the Florida novelists I mentioned, it's not the plot that matters; the plot is just an excuse to create vivid and memorable characters, have crazy stuff happen to them, and give them rich, distinctive, hard-bitten, hilarious, colorful, quotable dialogue. My favorite line in the book: "He had an expression on his face like a man who had just been told he was going to have to swallow and pass a bowling ball, then bowl a strike with it."
Lansdale is the guy who wrote the story the film Bubba Ho-Tep was based on, so, if you've seen that, maybe you've got an idea of what I'm talking about here.
The Magic Wagon is an earlier, lesser effort, but still enjoyable. It's a Western, and it involves a traveling medicine show, Indian mysticism, surreally malevolent weather, and the mummified corpse of Wild Bill Hickock. Its tone is much tamer than the other book -- Bad Chili has non-stop foul language, a thoughtful but very frank approach to sex, and much more brutal violence -- but it still ain't for kids.
Lansdale is a real discovery for me, one I should've discovered much sooner. I plan on going through as much Lansdale as I can find in short order, starting with the remainder of the Hap and Leonard series.
Caveat: Lansdale uses the "n-word" in his books. And he uses it a lot. A lot. Same with any number of gay-directed epithets. Does he use them in a manner accurately reflecting the speech of certain real East Texans, both modern and historical? Yes. Does he use them in a prurient fashion, for cheap shock value, in an irresponsible way? No, absolutely not. He makes it very clear that the people who use those terms are generally vile, ignorant, racist, homophobic buffoons. But, for those with more delicate sensibilities, it's perhaps best to be aware of that little fact going in.