It’s much easier for us to deal with a lie that feels like the truth than a truth we wish were a lie. Which is to say that generally we’re much happier (and often better-served) to hear a fictional story about an unhappy problem than non-fictional reportage that’s so dire we refuse to let it enter our ears. And it helps too, if we already know the folks in that fictional story, especially if we’ve known the fictional people (as characters) for years.
Joe R. Lansdale is an expert at making readers happy, a skill much in evidence in his latest Hap & Leonard novel, Rusty Puppy. By my count, it’s the ninth novel in Lansdale’s series featuring low-key North Texas detectives Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Hap is white, straight, married (to Brett Sawyer), easy-going and liberal; Leonard is black, gay, unmarried, hot-headed and conservative. Lansdale’s skill at playing with the dynamic between the two makes them believable, enjoyable and charming. The first book in the series is Savage Season, and if you’ve not encountered these guys before, this is the place to start.
That said, Rusty Puppy is smart enough to bring you up to speed in about three paragraphs that open the novel (which the author reads in my interview; more on that later). You get death, resurrection and a laugh-out-loud line you’ll want to hang on to. Once you’re in place with Hap, Leonard and the whole family, the clients arrive, and things begin whipsawing between hilarious, terrifying, poignant to craft a story that moves like lightning, makes you laugh a lot while you read and think about afterwards.
As the novel begins, a (black) mother from a nearby rusting-out mill-town hires Hap & Leonard to find out what happened to her son. The cover story is that he was killed looking for drugs in a bad part of town, uncharacteristic behavior. His mother thinks the cops killed him. Hap is inclined to take it slower, while Leonard wants to quickly even accounts by any means necessary. As skilled as these two are, prepare to stay awake turning pages as characters you love are put through the wringer – and yet you laugh. Yes, you laugh a lot.
What proves to be the true power of Lansdale’s work here is that he’s so good at entertaining you with these great characters, smart-ass humor and a toe-tapping terrorizing plot that he’s able to pack intense, powerful truths into his fictions as a by-product. Now, make no mistake, this reads very much like a comedic crime novel, with more than a few touches of horror. It’s fast paced and (slow down!) quickly read. That said, when you finish the book, you will come to know that it is not finished with you. The jokes are still funny, and linger, charging the implications of the novel with their frenetic energy.
Ultimately, Rusty Puppy is fun; the kind of fun that energizes the world around you. If it represents only a slice of what Lansdale writes, well – that’s all the more incredible. When I sat down to interview Lansdale, first I had him read the opening of Rusty Puppy. But, not surprisingly, that brought up his beginning to The Drive-In, which is one of my all-time favorites. I could not help but laugh, and then we were off to the races, talking about Rusty Puppy without really talking about it. We talked about the TV series based on the novels; each season roughly covers one novel, and the seasons will follow the novels’ order.
For all that Lansdale is making his name with the Hap & Leonard novels, he’s actually writing quite a bit for Subterranean Press, whether it’s the upcoming Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers, a prequel novel for Bubba Ho-Tep, Dead on the Bones, a collection of pulp stories, or Hell’s Bounty, a supernatural western co-written with Lansdale’s brother John L. Lansdale. Lansdale and I talked about all of them, when he wasn’t making me laugh.
If you’re in a hurry, check out the short lightning round interview, which you can download from this link, or listen to below.
No matter what you do listen to the reading that begins this interview, then stay for the many laughs that follow. Download the whole shebang here; listen to the first bit below.