Monday, July 17, 2017

A Hap and Leonard Reread: Captains Outrageous (2001)

            Hap and Leonard take a vacation, and everything goes smoothly. For maybe the first five seconds…

            The sixth Hap and Leonard novel opens with our fearless heroes having finally found some sense of normalcy. They’ve each landed a steady job as security guards for a chicken processing plant, so that’s one thing. Leonard’s found himself in a steady relationship and has a pet armadillo named Bob. Hap’s relationship with Brett isn’t going too well, as she’s still preoccupied with getting her wayward daughter Tillie back on her feet after the events of the previous novel, but at least he has a steady paycheck and a new roof over his head. Everything is more or less going smoothly for everyone’s favorite East Texas duo… which of course means that it’s only a matter of time before another bomb goes off. That bomb just so happens to be a drugged-out tweaker Hap comes across after coming off the late shift at the chicken plant, beating a girl near to death after dragging her into the woods surrounding the parking lot. Hap fights him off, saving the girl’s life and then gets a visit from her father the next day. It turns out her father is the multimillionaire owner of the plant, and to show off his appreciation for Hap saving his daughter’s life, he gives him a hundred grand in thanks. Surprised to have actually caught a break for once in life, Hap decides to treat himself and Leonard to a vacation, and the two embark on a cruise ship sailing the Gulf of Mexico. All of that covers essentially the first thirty pages of Captains Outrageous, so of course it isn’t long before fate comes in to give to big screw to the boys, in the spectacularly-entertaining fashion that only Joe Lansdale could provide.

            Captains Outrageous continues the tradition of swerving left turns that Lansdale often uses in his fiction, and is perhaps the wildest example yet. The plot unfolds in the manner of an episode of The Simpsons, where it starts going in one direction and ends in a completely different place; resulting in a narrative that feels like some bizarre combination of a Russian nesting doll and Rube Goldberg machine. Hap and Leonard go from being on what is probably the worst cruise in the world, to getting stranded in a small town in Mexico, to getting stabbed in a knife fight by bandits and rescued by an aging fisherman and his daughter, to getting involved with a loan shark who just so happens to be one of the biggest figures in the Mexican drug cartels… and that’s just the first half of the book. It’s a wild ride, though and through, and Lansdale keeps the reader on their toes, never once allowing them settle in to any familiarity.

            The crux of the zigzagging storyline does have a center, though, and that primarily concerns the classic “fish out of water” set-up. Hap and Leonard are out of the confines of Texas, cast adrift in unfamiliar territory that neither is all that adept at navigating. Hap and Leonard have enough trouble with their own corrupt police force back home in LaBorde, TX, but that’s nothing compared to the Mexican police, who moonlight in their off-duty hours as the very same thieves that stab Leonard after the duo get left behind by their cruise ship. The characters they encounter are as colorful as ever, with an aging fisherman in his seventies who is nonetheless the baddest motherfucker with a machete you’ve ever seen, a drug lord who practices public nudity and a persnickety waiter on board the cruise who gets his revenge on the rule-breaking Leonard by telling him the wrong boarding time after the boat goes ashore. The setting may be different, but the details generally stay the same. Lansdale revels in the grime and the grit of hard-luck losers and strung-out junkies, and frequently populates the Hap and Leonard series with Grand Guignol-levels of dirt and decay. It doesn’t matter whether it’s East Texas or Mexico--Hap and Leonard will always find the most roach-infested hotels, the flimsiest shacks and the filthiest toilets.

Of course, Hap and Leonard do eventually make it back home, after witnessing the aftermath of a horrific murder and spending some time in a Mexican jail cell, but considering this comes at the novel’s halfway point, it’s safe to assume there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Despite Hap patching things up with Brett and Leonard returning home to John and Bob, fate once more intervenes and sticks it to the duo where it hurts the most when the death of a long-standing character in the series sends them back across the border on a mission of revenge. It’s a blood-soaked ending where the twists and turns keep coming, all before wrapping up in a quick but brutal manner. The very end may feel a little too pat and easy on its head, but there are some fairly serious implications for Hap’s character on down the line. The eternal bleeding heart is becoming more and more comfortable with a slowly-revealed bloodlust, and Hap’s struggles with his violent nature will be key to later installments in the series.

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