Joe R. Lansdale


"Savage Season"

(Reviewed by Daniel Luft APR 2, 2009)

"..-back when I met her and she was going to be a great artist and I was going to find some way to save the world. Far as I knew, closest she'd gotten to art was a drafting table and dressing mannequins in store windows, and the closest I'd gotten to saving the world was my name on some petitions, for everything from recycling aluminum cans to saving the whales. I put my cans in the trash now, and I didn't know how the whales were doing."

There is a currently an aging generation of great American thriller writers who came of age in the 1950s reading a steady diet of EC comic books and Gold Medal paperbacks. They are a talented and prolific bunch and most never hit the bestseller lists but instead see their books fall out of print with sporadic republication and rediscovery. Their protagonists don’t own passports and their cops don’t have ready access to cutting-edge police technology. There are more malls and gas stations in their books than sandy beaches or private planes. Their books aren’t always widely reviewed but the authors probably still make a better living than they would teaching at the local college. This group could be called the Sons of Donald Westlake since they adhere to that author’s economy of style by writing tightly-plotted, intensely violent books that are often under 200 pages. The list of these authors includes, but is not limited to Loren D. Estleman, Max Allan Collins, Ed Gorman, Robert J. Randisi and Joe R. Lansdale.

And Lansdale is currently getting a good shot to build his audience lately with the hardcover publication of Leather Maiden and the reprinting of his Texas Noir series starring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine.

The first in this series, Savage Season proves that Lansdale knows more about narrative structure than any of those writers who regularly do hit the bestseller lists. There is not one wasted word in this book. Little details that usually just add color to a story like a certain tree in the forest or Hap’s musings on how people used to be able to see Venus in the sky on sunny days turn into plot points so many pages later. Every piece of action, dialogue and Hap’s first-person narration moves the plot inevitably to the novel’s conclusion. This book is tighter than most short stories that are one tenth its length.

The story begins, lustfully enough, with Hap’s ex-wife showing up at his house. She not only wants another round in bed with her first husband but also wants to enlist him in a plot to find stolen money that was lost in an East Texas river bog many years before. She has others in on the plan but Hap is the one most familiar with the territory.

Hap agrees but only if he can bring his friend Leonard Collins. Hap and Leonard are the proverbial best friends who are opposites. Hap is a former hippie who served time for draft dodging while Leonard is a decorated Vietnam vet. Both of them have recovered from any 60s angst they once held. They are happy to look for money but are alarmed when they find that they are teamed up with a bunch of aging 60s radicals who want the money to restart the “revolution,” whatever that may be.

The most mysterious member of the old Hippie gang is Paco, a heavily scarred man who survived a bomb burst while he was leading a group of subversive revolutionaries. He’s been on the run from the FBI for years and needs his share of the money badly:

“Then one by one there wasn’t anyplace for me to stay. Harboring a fugitive from the old days was no longer romantic; flirting with the law and danger was no longer fun. People had to take their kids to soccer games and work in the PTA.”

Hap is a bit more pragmatic as he assesses his past and ponders the money: “The bottom’s fallen out of my convictions…This heart’s bled out. Gone dry as toast. You don’t think so, hide in the bushes and watch me head for Mexico.”

The radical politics is a load of garbage in Hap’s eyes until the money is eventually found and guns are drawn. Suddenly the flower-children-who-never-grew-up turn into a small survivalist militia whose revolution is potentially deadly. And Hap and Leonard are dragged into nebulous politics as the gang attempts to use the money for their own purposes. The ending is violent, extremely violent for a series book as one character after another dies a graphically described death. It is also written with an edge-of-your-seat flair that is impossible to put down.

It is telling that Savage Season was originally published in 1990 and written in the waning years of the Reagan presidency, long after the baby-boomer hangover mysteries of the late 1970s like James Crumley’s “The Wrong Case” or Newton Thornberg’s “Cutter and Bone.” Lansdale reminds the reader that these characters, who have deep emotional stories in their past, were still quite young and vital and in their 40s as the 90s rolled in. Hap Collins has come to terms with the shortcomings of his past. And though they have hit middle age and set his sites a little lower than saving the world, for Hap and Leonard Savage Season is just the beginning. For the reader discovering this series for the first time, it is a pleasure to find the entire cycle in print

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 30 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Savage Season

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"Mucho Mojo"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage APR 2, 2009)

“It was my former boss, Lacy, the Old Bastard. He sounded friendly. A warning flag went up. I figured whoever had taken my place in the fields had gotten a better job bouncing drunks or shoveling shit, or maybe died of stroke or snakebite, or taken up preaching, which was a pretty good career, you had the guts not to be ashamed of it.”

Excuse me while I rave about Joe R. Lansdale’s novel Mucho Mojo. I am nothing less than orgasmic after discovering the Hap & Leonard series. Okay, okay, long-term Lansdale fans can snigger at this Johnny-come-lately review. What do I care? I’m still on a literary high from spending two days hanging out with Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. And even though I’ve just turned the last page of Mucho Mojo, I’ve discovered that Lansdale has apparently written an entire series with me in mind. Mucho Mojo is only the second novel in the series, so I have some fantastic reading ahead of me.

My introduction to the dark, bizarre world of author Joe Lansdale came last year in the form of the thriller Leather Maiden. Set in East Texas, it is a tale of murder, blackmail and corruption in a nasty claustrophobic little town. After finishing the novel, and realizing that Lansdale also wrote Bubba Ho-Tep, I filed away the author’s name in the back of my brain with the intention of backtracking through his other novels at some point. This brings me to Mucho Mojo, originally published in 1994 and reprinted this year. The book is an absolutely terrific thriller I absorbed over the course of two days, and as a fan of hard boiled crime fiction, this book earns a space in my “Hall of Fame” of riveting, unusual reads, and while I enjoyed The Leather Maiden, Mucho Mojo--and more importantly--its two incredible main characters hit a chord with me.

Now if it bothers you to read profanity (those dirty words our mothers warned us about), then stop right here, do yourself a favour and forget I ever told you about this book. But if you’re like me and swear like a sailor, then you will relate to the raw language of these two working class stiffs who live in the town of Laborde, Texas.

The mystery begins when Leonard Pine’s uncle dies and leaves all his worldly possessions, $100,000 dollars, and his ramshackle house to his estranged nephew--Leonard. There was a time when Leonard and Uncle Chester were close, and Leonard spent a great deal of his childhood in his uncle’s home. But when Leonard told his uncle that he was gay, the relationship went south.

So for Leonard, the inheritance comes as a bittersweet pill and a reminder of all he lost, but his troubles begin when he arrives at his uncle’s house. It’s right next to a crack house, and what’s more the drug den is a thriving business with patrons seeking the chemical thrills that are absent in the hopelessness of their dead-end, poverty-stricken lives. The crack house “assholes” don’t exactly set out the welcome mat for Leonard and Hap, and the two men basically endure a siege situation at the house when they move in and begin fixing it up for sale.

In the middle of the renovations, Hap and Leonard discover the chopped up remains of a child stuffed in a box full of kiddie porn. This horrifying discovery creates a dilemma for Leonard. Has he stumbled onto Uncle Chester’s dirty little secret? All evidence points to that fact, and although Leonard struggles with the notion that his uncle may be a child pornographer, he eventually clings to the idea that in spite of his uncle’s homophobia, he was a decent, good man who had a secret penchant for detective work. And this leads Leonard and Hap into the black heart of Laborde’s unsolved child murders, and through “the doorway to hell.”

Apart from just being a damn good mystery, there are two features to Mucho Mojo that raise this book so far above other books of the same ilk: 1) the author’s phenomenal writing style and 2) the characters Hap and Leonard. As a reader, I don’t enjoy massive amounts of description and I tend to enjoy character-driven books, but in Mucho Mojo, the author’s powerful descriptive ability, written with a deceptively easy grace, and loaded with power conveys an incredible sense of place. I could almost hear the mosquitoes buzzing:

“It was still light, the summer days being long here in East Texas, but the sun was oozing down over the edge of the earth and the sky in the west looked like a burst blood vessel. The air was a little cool and it smelled sweetly of damp earth.”

And Lansdale also has a knack with pithy descriptions of people. Here’s a description of Uncle Chester:

“We paraded by the open coffin, and of course, Uncle Chester hadn’t missed his chance to be the guest of honor. He was one ugly sonofabitch, and I figured alive he hadn’t looked much better. He wasn’t very tall, but he was wide, and being dead a few days before they found him hadn’t helped his looks any. The mortician had only succeeded in making him look a bit like a swollen Cabbage Patch doll.”

Ultimately, however, it’s the unlikely combination of Hap and Leonard that makes this novel. Their relationship surpasses racial and sexual boundaries (Leonard is black and gay, and Hap, the novel’s narrator is white and straight). Living in the middle of a black ghetto, Hap’s presence raises some eyebrows, and most people jump to the wrong conclusion about their relationship. They’ve long since resolved issues of sexuality (the novel has a few "black vs. white dick" jokes) and competitiveness that might trouble other men, and instead they live like some sort of blood brothers, easy in each other’s company, and with an intuitive connection that encompasses an uncanny moral similarity. Disconnected from most of the world, and essentially loners, they derive comfort in their relationship and form an ad-hoc sort of family, finding solace in physical labor. And the fact that they are not always in synch just adds to the interest factor.

Some of the book’s most enjoyable moments are created when the vanilla cookie-addicted Leonard, and the thoughtful Hap mull over events and share conversations on the bleakness of humanity and the nature of good and evil. Many outsiders would write off Hap and Leonard as losers, but that’s simply because they eschew traditional values of consumerism and ambition. It’s been a long time since I came across literary characters I wish I could hang out with, but Hap and Leonard definitely fall into that category. And it’s also been a long time since I was sorry to say goodbye to fictional characters, but that’s just how I felt when I turned the last page. Life is too short for crap books, so I am consoling myself with the fact that there’s a reunion with Hap and Leonard (through the rest of the series) in my near future.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 32 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Mucho Mojo



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Hap Collins / Leonard Pine series:

Short Story Collections:

Written as Jack Buchanan (The Mark Stone Mia Hunter series)

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Joe R. LansdaleJoe R. Lansdale was born in 1951 in Gladewater, Texas. He wrote his first paid published piece at the age of 21, a non-fiction article coauthored with his mother. It won a prize for best letter article. He continued to write articles and then in the mid-seventies he began to sell fiction.

Now, with more than twenty books and 200 short stories to his credit, Lansdale is considered the champion Mojo storyteller. He's been called "the Stephen King of Texas" by Texas Monthly; "an immense talent" by Booklist; "a born storyteller" by Robert Bloch; and The New York Times Book Review declares he has "a folklorist's eye for telling detail and a front-porch raconteur's sense of pace." He's won many awards, including five Bram Stoker horror awards, a British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Horror Critics Award, the "Shot in the Dark" International Crime Writer's award, the Booklist Editor's Award, the Critic's Choice Award, and a New York Times Notable Book award. His novel, The Bottoms, won the 2001 Edgar Awards for Best Novel.

Joe Lansdale is also a martial artist for over 35 years and an Inductee into the INTERNATIONAL MARTIAL ARTS HALL OF FAME as Founder / Grandmaster of Shen Chuan and certified Ninth Degree Black Belt by the World Martial Arts Alliance. Lansdale has also been inducted into the Texas Martial Arts Hall of Fame as well, and is a multiple black belt holder.

Lansdale lives in Nacogdoches, Texas, with his wife, Karen, writer and editor. They have a son and daughter.

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