Friday, July 14, 2017

A Hap and Leonard Reread: The Two-Bear Mambo (1995)

            Hap and Leonard step in it once again, this time in a small, Klan-infested town…

            Two-Bear Mambo opens with Leonard once again setting fire to the crack-house next door (his favorite past-time), perfectly setting the stage for the carnage awaiting us in this third Hap and Leonard novel. Leonard--as well as Hap, because of course he’s along for the ride--gets off any criminal charges pretty easily, considering this is the third or fourth time he’s done it, but it comes with a catch. Det. Marvin Hansen’s estranged girlfriend has gone missing, and he gives Hap and Leonard the job of tracking her down. The only problem is said estranged girlfriend is one Florida Grange, whom you’ll remember left Hap for Hansen at the end of the last book. Another wrinkle: she went missing after inquiring about the mysterious death of a black man in prison, in a little pit-stop of a place called Grovetown, TX--a backwards town even by normal Texan standards, with rumors of heavy Klan activity, to boot. Considering all that, things don’t look especially promising for the missing Ms. Grange, but Hap and Leonard pack their bags and head to Grovetown, anyway. And if it isn’t Hell following with them, well… it’ll certainly be waiting for them when they get there.

            Being set in Texas and featuring an African American as one of its main characters, racism is certainly always a present element within the series, but here Lansdale really gets to sink his teeth into the messy and complicated nature of racism in the American South. The author cuts right to the heart of it, featuring all the different shades of bigotry that color the landscape, whether it’s in the shameless display of white robes or the redneck police chief who doesn’t want to see harm done to anyone, but would just as soon leave the “blacks” to settle their own and not get involved. It hits home especially when both the audience and the novel’s main characters have to be careful of where they step foot, such as the scene where Leonard decides to stay in the car while Hap goes into a diner to question the locals about Florida, so as not to cause further trouble.

            It wouldn’t be a Hap and Leonard book if we didn’t meet an assortment of colorful characters along the way, and the equally quirky evirons in which they inhabit. Hap and Leonard butt heads with the Grovetown sheriff along the way, a classic good ole boy with an engorged testicle that sticks out of his pants like he has a softball in his front pocket, which of course Lansdale relishes in describing every time the sheriff waddles onto the scene. There’s an ambiguity to the sheriff’s character that remains in place pretty much until the novel’s end, where we’re never entirely sure whether he’s on our heroes’ side or not, and that tension plays well with the overall darker and more bleak turn the novel takes. Grovetown also offers some fascinating and oddly-humorous locations, such as they trailer park Hap and Leonard stay at while in town, where all the trailers are hiked up high in the air on posts in case there’s a flood. Keeping true to the series overall mantra, Hap and Leonard just happen to get the one whose previous occupants washed their chihuahua and then tried to dry it off in the oven, leaving the whole trailer to reek of charred dog.

There’s also the town itself, where you’re never sure if the police, the gas station attendant or the dumb hicks at the diner keep a white hood in their back pocket, just waiting for an excuse to whip it out and show their true colors. In makes for several tense and horrifying encounters, but ultimately all that Klan business winds up being a somewhat disappointing red herring, being that it doesn’t really play in to the overall mystery of what happened to Florida. We get some great scenes out of it--such as a terrific action scene taking place at a swamp at night near the end, which plays like a deep-fried First Blood on steroids--but the incidental nature of their involvement in the story feels like a set-up that never fully pays off.

The initial stakes also don’t feel as personal for our main duo here as they have in the past. Hap still harbors conflicted feelings for Florida, but he and Leonard are still essentially hired guns on a mission they didn’t exactly sign up for willingly. But what turns out to be a simple search for a missing person soon turns into a nightmare of epic proportions, one that tests the duo in ways that even their previous crazed adventures never even came close to. For all the misfortune that befell them in the past, Hap and Leonard always survived their encounters; two swinging dicks that can more than handle themselves in a fight where the odds are often against them. But here, Hap and Leonard get a hard lesson in humility, as the two are savagely beaten by almost the entire town in one especially harrowing scene. The encounter leaves the two of them shaken in a way that almost cripples them--physically and emotionally--and even threatens to cripple their relationship with each other. They manage to pull it together in time to figure out what happened to Florida and bring the guilty parties to justice, but only just so.

As far as the resolution of Florida’s disappearance is concerned, that also can’t help but feel a little disappointing, as well. The question of what exactly happened to Flordia was perhaps never in doubt, and I did enjoy how Lansdale plays with expectations with another left turn, but it’s one that’s considerably less interesting than the other possibilities set up in the events leading to it. The reveal comes at the novel’s climax, taking place during a massive flood nearly washes Grovetown off the map. Location and character are always a big part of the Hap and Leonard books, but in Two-Bear Mambo, Lansdale amplifies another important element of the series: weather. It’s an exciting scene for sure, and one that leaves our heroes in an even bigger mess than normal (which is saying something). But is still can’t help but feel just a little bit silly, considering the parties involved should be running for their lives to keep from drowning, instead of going through the motions of a traditional mystery novel, “Aha!” revelation.

But, in spite of tantalizing set-ups that don’t fully pay-off, Two-Bear Mambo succeeds as another winning entry in the series that never fails to entertain; a brutal, funny and rip-roaring example of a yarn well-spun.   

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