Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Hap and Leonard Reread: Rusty Puppy (2017)

            Hap and Leonard get back to their roots in this scaled-down adventure.

             For Rusty Puppy, it feels like Lansdale wants to get back to the classic Hap and Leonard feel. Not that the series has lost its way or become lesser in any capacity, but a lot has changed for the characters since they made their debut in Savage Season. Hap is living in a somewhat domesticated fashion with his girlfriend Brett, his newfound daughter Chance and even their dog Buffy. He and Leonard have finally found a real-deal career, working for Brett’s private detective office. They even manage to (mostly) stay out of hot water with the LaBorde police dept. thanks to their longtime friend Marvin Hansen, who’s worked his way up the chain to the position of police commissioner. They’ve also developed a nice set of supporting characters to call upon if they happen to be in trouble, whether it’s their third-wheel P.I. buddy Jim Bob Luke, mysterious attorney Veil, newspaper reporter Cason Statler or the deadly assassin Vanilla Ride. It’s a wide and fun cast of characters Lansdale can draw from with each new kerfluffle Hap and Leonard find themselves in, and each one acts as a different ingredient to spice up the Hap and Leonard stew whenever they show up.

            But it all started with Hap and Leonard themselves, and bringing all of those elements in can often put their dynamic on the back-burner. As such, Rusty Puppy strips away most everything else to give us a classic Hap and Leonard story, with the two taking on the case of a murdered black man which may have been perpetrated by a neighboring town’s corrupt police force. You can tell Lansdale’s trying to bring back the feel of some of the older stories; there’s no assassin-training compounds or putting together a team of badasses for a mission or rip-roaring car chases with an excess of collateral damage--just an intricate murder mystery that feels all too familiar to anyone who watches the evening news. And while I’ve enjoyed the turns Lansdale took in the recent novels, it is undeniable that the relationship that has been the backbone of the series sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. The characters have (mostly) aged in real time, and thus have to go through some fairly significant changes to keep the books from getting stale. It’s nice to see Hap find some manner of happiness with Brett and Chance, but it was his and Leonard’s constant hard luck that gave the original novels their charge. The heart of the series was always the two of them getting a shit sandwich and having no one but each other to rely on.

            To accomplish getting back to the feel of the old days, Lansdale sidelines Brett and Chance by giving them the somewhat lame excuse of having a bad case of the flu for most of the book. Introduced in the last novel, Chance still feels like a sub-plot that’s never really given its due. I like the relationship that Lansdale establishes between her and Hap, but there’s still a lot to unpack with this particular thread, considering they only just recently found out about each other and their familial ties. To get the proper development she deserves, Chance will have to be the main focus in a future novel or story. Also getting the short shrift is the giant cliffhanger left off by Honky Tonk Samurai, in which Hap was stabbed in the last chapter, his fate hanging in the balance as he was slipping quick whilst being rushed to the emergency room. It’s handled rather quickly in the first chapter, as Lansdale fast-forwards through hospital and recovery time to find Hap more or less back to “normal.” The character is still a bit of a brooder, and we get hints that Hap is having trouble dealing with his mortality, but the way everything is so quickly resolved makes the previous cliffhanger feel weightless.

            What isn’t weightless is the story that follows, a race-fuelled murder involving corrupt cops, an illegal boxing ring at an old abandoned saw-mill and Reba, a young girl from the projects who Leonard dubs “the 400-year old midget vampire.” It’s a mystery that feels more in line with older works like Mucho Mojo or Bad Chili, with Hap and Leonard going from one lead to another while encountering the colorful and often-times dangerous locals. Reba herself is perhaps one of the best to grace Hap and Leonard’s world, a foul-mouthed eight-year-old who provides information as long as it’s paid for in McDonalds’ apple pies. She develops such a rapport with the boys here that I wouldn’t be surprised to see her return in future installments, perhaps as a ward to Leonard and his new beau Officer Carroll. The rest of the mystery plays out like previous Hap and Leonard jaunts, with a mess of reveals and reversals that prevent the reader from ever getting too comfortable and usually wind up with the boys dealing out some harsh justice (although less harsh than the more recent affairs--Rusty Puppy doesn’t have the body count of what we saw in the Vanilla Ride trilogy, for instance). It does end with something we haven’t seen before: Hap and Leonard having a no-shit, for-real exchange of fists and feet. Don’t worry: the two are forced at gunpoint to fight each other, so it’s not like their friendship is shattered and they’re now hated enemies or whatever. But they are forced to not pull their punches, and the fight that follows is a legendary scene that might as well be Batman vs. Superman, King Kong vs. Godzilla… the Clash of the East Texas Bad-asses.

            Despite some elements being undercooked, it’s a fine installment in the ongoing saga, and a nice return to form of the classic Hap and Leonard feel.     

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