Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Hap and Leonard Reread: Savage Season (1990)

            World: meet Hap Collins and Leonard Pine.

            The line between “trope” and “cliché” ultimately lies in implementation. Because, if we’re being honest, we’ve seen every story before. Everyone complains about a lack of originality these days due to endless rehashing and regurgitations of what’s come before, but that’s not really what “originality” is about. True originality lies not necessarily in what the story is about, but rather--as the great Roger Ebert once put it--how it is about it. Consider last year’s Oscar winner Moonlight: at its core, a story that’s been told time and time again, of a young man finding himself and his place in the world. Now factor in that he’s black, gay and living in an environment little documented by the majority of popular entertainment, and all of a sudden we have a stunningly original vision that feels fresh, new and wholly unlike anything that’s come before it. In other words, character, context and craft can take what might have been stale before and refashion it into something wholly original.

            The same could be said for Joe R. Lansdale’s Savage Season, the debut of the author’s long-running Hap and Leonard series of novels. It’s a story we’ve seen time and time again: a dangerous woman from the past reenters our hero’s life and makes him an offer that just might be too good to be true. In the case of Savage Season, the dangerous woman from the past is Hap’s ex-wife Trudy Fawst, who shows up in the first chapter with said offer: a million in cash lying at the bottom of a creek bed, just sitting in the trunk of a car from a failed bank heist years ago. She asks for Hap’s help due to his remarkable familiarity with the surrounding swamp, and you can likely guess how it goes from there: the dangerous woman is into more than she lets on, and sooner or later our hapless (heh) hero finds himself at the end of more than one gun barrel before it’s all said and done. What makes the story special, however, is the who, where and why of it all. Lansdale’s from East Texas, and thus the majority of his fiction tends to take place in and around such deep, southern-fried locales. Hap and Leonard call the fictional town of Laborde, TX home, and it’s a colorful setting filled with all manner of elements not traditionally seen in crime and noir fiction. Gator-filled swamps, diners where the burgers and coffee carry equal amounts of grease, broken-down trailers with rusted Ford pick-ups set on cinderblocks in the front yard… it’s a far cry from the mean city streets and noir-drenched alleyways where the action usually takes place, but that’s exactly what gives Lansdale’s work it’s charm.  

            A charm that wouldn’t be nearly as effective without Lansdale himself. Lansdale’s words come together in a prose style that feels like the author is there with you, creaking a rocking chair on the front porch to the sounds of cicadas blanketing a gentle summer breeze. At once elegiac and crass, Lansdale’s stories routinely defy traditional categorization. It’s not uncommon to be reading one of his works and find yourself laughing your ass off on one page, only to be heartbroken by the next, and it all works because the voice is consistent throughout--a literary voice that is at once immediately recognizable and imminently readable. Lansdale weaves through genres like an expert fiddler, as what starts out a simple and easy-going backwoods heist story veers violently into freakshow territory at the end when a pair of drug-dealing psychopaths named Soldier and Angel enter the story and things go quickly from Ocean’s Eleven to Last House on the Left. It’s a turn that could be whiplash-inducing, but the delve into out-and-out horror ups the stakes and gives the novel some much needed urgency there at the end.

            Of course, all of that wouldn’t mean a damn unless we had characters to care about, but Lansdale has us covered in that regard in his two most indelible creations. Hap Collins and Leonard Pine make for a excellent pair of continuing characters, although it may not be readily apparent from their first adventure (for their author or his readers) that they would continue on in a long-running series. Hap is narrator here, and thus gets the lion’s share of the attention. Savage Season isn’t so much an examination of Hap and Leonard’s relationship so much as it is a story of a disillusioned former hippie who went to jail for refusing to serve in Vietnam having to come to grips with just how little an impact all that talk of change and free love had on the world. The whole novel is an extension of Hap’s still-lingering ennui from that time, both in the form of the literal ghost of his past in Trudy all the way through coming face-to-face with the ruthless excess of the 1980’s exemplified in Soldier and Angel. Leonard is more or less along for the ride, but already a dynamic is forming just around the edges. One of the main reasons the series has been so long-lasting (and perhaps why Lansdale has returned again and again to these characters when he’s never really been a “series” author) is their versatility as story vehicles. The two couldn’t be more different: one a white, hetero bleeding heart liberal, the other a gay, Black Republican. Having two characters with such wildly differing viewpoints allows Lansdale to attack any given situation from both sides, fully exploring and dealing with all permutations of any given conflict. It’s fairly common for Hap to be more forgiving and compassionate of the various n’er-do-wells they come across on their travels, while Leonard has neither the time nor the pity for any of their bullshit. It’s not unlike the Kirk-Spock-Bones dynamic from Star Trek, where you could pluck those character dynamics into any situation and immediately have a story.

             It’s something that Lansdale would elaborate upon when he decided to return to Hap and Leonard and continue their adventures, and one of the things that has made the series stand the test of time, all these years later.

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