Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Hap and Leonard Reread: Rumble Tumble (1998)

           Hap and Leonard embark on their most intense adventure yet, as they journey across the border for a deadly rescue operation.

            With the Hap and Leonard books, Joe Lansdale is always walking a fine line between reality and fantasy. Not that the duo often find themselves facing down vampires and werewolves (although that wouldn’t exactly be an unwelcome thought), but the world in which Hap and Leonard inhabit is always just a few steps removed from the real world, if Hap and Leonard are to continue being everyone’s favorite blue-collar vigilante amateur detectives. The characters themselves are uniquely adaptable to almost any situation, but their station in life (i.e., not policemen, detectives, etc.) means that they can only work within the narrative and remain believable if certain conditions are met. Thus, there’s a constant lawlessness that must exist in the world of Hap and Leonard for it all to make sense. The police and other law enforcement officials have to be either corrupt or uncaring for it all to work.

            As such, up till this point, there’s only been so much trouble Hap and Leonard can get themselves into, narratively speaking. They’ve been subject to various beatings and close scrapes with death, but rarely have any of these instances seen either of them take someone’s life with their own hands. But in Rumble Tumble, the fifth of the Hap and Leonard books, the rules are rewritten once again, and because part of the novel takes place across the border into Mexico, our fearless duo are free to engage in some harsher stuff beyond mere fisticuffs without the law ever having to come into it. We open this chapter with things going smoothly for our two heroes, for a change. Hap and his new girlfriend Brett are getting serious--serious enough that Hap is thinking about moving in with her and out of Leonard’s house (an outcome that Leonard is eager for Hap to do as soon as humanly possible). He still can’t land or hold down a job worth anything, but Hap has found a sliver of happiness in Brett, and for once it appears that everything just might work out in the end. Until Brett gets word that her wayward daughter Tillie might be in trouble, having gotten in deep with some bad dudes she’s been prostituting for. Hap promises to help Brett go find her and bring her back home, and of course Leonard is along for the ride. The three load up on guns and grit, and head out of state in search of Tillie.

We got to know Brett pretty well in the last book, but the character really blossoms here as a force to be reckoned with, equal to and perhaps even tougher that Hap and Leonard themselves. Much like Jim Bob Luke, she eases in with Hap and Leonard’s formidable chemistry like a well-fit glove, and watching the duo transform into a trio with a different dynamic (especially when two of the three are sleeping with each other) is an interesting twist on the established formula. We also get more colorful side characters in spades, chief amongst them Red, Tillie’s former pimp who also happens to be a dwarf and loves to wax rhapsodic about everything from fashion choices to steak rancheros. He becomes a reluctant ally (really more a hostage) when Hap, Leonard and Brett abduct him and force him to lead them to Tillie. Red’s brother also gets involved along the way, an ex-con who’s changed his ways and become a man of the cloth, only to turn to prairie dog hunting when his parishioners stop showing up on Sunday mornings.

They all bounce off each other nicely, and put quite a few moral dilemmas in the mix as the story goes on. This is best exemplified in the treatment of Red, who spends much of the novel complaining about how his upbringing gave him no choice but to turn out the way he did. Hap can’t help but feel bad for Red due to his rough past, but Leonard and Brett remain convinced he would’ve turned out an asshole anyway. It’s the type of debate that is the true lifeblood of the series, examining the grey morality that runs throughout Hap and Leonard’s extra-legal and often violent adventures, with Rumble Tumble being the most violent yet. As Leonard explains to Hap early on when going to acquire guns before leaving, to do what they need to do, the two will have resort to deadly force if they want to get both themselves and Tilly out alive in the end. It’s something the bleeding heart Hap has been able to avoid for most of the series, generally able to see himself through anything with just his fist and wits, but the stakes here are deadlier. It all explodes in a violent shoot-out at a whorehouse just south of the border--a gruesome affair that plays out in a way that is every bit thrilling as it is impactful, and shakes Hap, Leonard and Brett down to their very cores.

It’s a darker book overall, even though Lansdale’s humor is still as whip-smart and biting as ever. But you can definitely see a change in the characters from here on out in the series, as Hap and Leonard’s scruples (well, mostly Hap’s) in resorting to lethal force are considerably lessened in the subsequent books. Which is not to say that the character or the series loses its conscience; what’s most refreshing about the Hap and Leonard series is that it doesn’t shy away from the effects of violence inflicted on the righteous and despicable alike, or the toll it takes on its lead characters. It’s a tension the series has always played with beautifully, and Rumble Tumble’s considerable upping of the stakes makes it one of best in the Hap and Leonard canon. In fact, if I have any criticism, it’s with the character who sets the events of the novel in motion, Brett’s daughter Tillie, who doesn’t get much “character” herself. I suppose it is entirely appropriate with the overall Pyrrhic nature that is Hap and Leonard’s constant lot in life, with the “victory” coming at far too great a cost and perhaps noot even entirely worth it in the end, but it still would have been nice to get more out of Tillie than “drugged-out whore.” They spend all this time going after Tillie, and the most development we get out of her basically amounts to a single line of dialogue.

Still, Rumble Tumble is a whopper of an entry in the Hap and Leonard series, a turning point for the characters that is fast, funny and brutally impactful.

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