Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Hap and Leonard Reread: Vanilla Ride (2009)

            Hap and Leonard take on their deadliest foe yet, a high-rolling assassin for the Dixie mafia.

            Rights issues kept Hap and Leonard off the page for a time, but they made their glorious return in Vanilla Ride, almost eight years after the publication of Captains Outrageous. A lot happened between 2001 and 2009: America faced its greatest existential crisis yet on 9/11, which in turn led to a messy and unending conflict in the Middle East that still has no definitive resolution in sight. I bring all of this up only because Hap and Leonard were birthed from the fallout of Vietnam, a similar conflict that took its own existential debt on the country’s conscience. In other words, Hap and Leonard began as sort of poster children of the Boomer generation, a commentary on a very specific moment in time and the disillusionment that followed. Even though eight years doesn’t seem long enough to create a generational divide, an awful lot happened in those eight years, and thus Hap and Leonard had to be tweaked just ever so slightly to bring them up to date with the shifting landscape of the modern world.

It’s nothing that changes the fundamentals of who the characters are, though. They’ve still got their Odd Couple thing going on, with Hap playing the bleeding heart leftie, and Leonard the old school conservative. They’re older now, although not as old as they would be had they aged in real time--this “second wave” of the series operates on a shifting timeline, with the duo aging at a slower rate so as to still be viable ass-kickers, and not solving crimes in the nursing home. Hap is still living in a somewhat domestic bliss with his main squeeze Brett, although his violent past and frequently-violent present are starting to weigh heavily on him. Leonard is on the outs with his boyfriend John, but he still likes Dr. Pepper and vanilla cookies. Their old cop buddy Marvin Hansen has retired from the force and finally started that P.I. office he threatened to in the last book, and frequently calls on Hap and Leonard to help out; possibly as payback for all the trouble they gave him when he was a detective. Vanilla Ride opens as such, with Hansen asking Hap and Leonard to help him out with his grand-daughter Gadget, who’s fallen in with a rough crowd. The dynamic duo arm themselves with the intention of having a “personal-growth conference” with Gadget’s boyfriend and his crew. After a rollicking showdown in a trailer in the middle of nowhere, Hap and Leonard successfully retrieve Gadget, but inadvertently stir the hornet’s nest that is the local branch of the Dixie Mafia, and things just continue to get even more peachy from there.

One thing’s for certain with his return to his longest-running series: Lansdale comes out of the gate swinging, giving us shoot-outs and car chases and deadly escapes aplenty for their seventh adventure… perhaps too much, at least if we’re keeping to the “reality” previously established in the earlier books. The Hap and Leonard series were always chock full of pulp thrills that were just this side of the real world, but the down-to-Earth, blue collar nature of the main characters always keeps the series operating on a certain wavelength--a wavelength Lansdale stretches in a real bone-cruncher of a scene, a car-chase/shootout that almost reaches Michael Bay-levels of carnage and destruction. It’s a fantastic, white-knuckle action scene, but it has our main characters so easily dishing out Death Wish­­-style punishment that it feels out of pace with the previous novels--especially for Hap, who’s become so comfortable shooting folks in the head that he starts to feel like a different character. This change does appear to be intentional, as Hap’s growing violent tendencies provide the main thematic thrust that carries the novel, but it’s still a scene that, even in the heightened reality of the Hap and Leonard books, would surely result in putting our main characters behind bars for a very long time, and it can’t help but feel a little jarring, as a result.  

Lansdale maneuvers that violent encounter into an inciting incident for the real meat of the story, which sees Hap and Leonard trading jail time for a favor to the FBI. It turns out that one of the Dixie Mafia is angling for a deal, but will only turn state’s evidence if the feds bring back his son, who’s run away with a healthy cut of the mob’s money. Not wanting to make it an official mission sanctioned by the FBI, the feds instead blackmail Hap and Leonard into tracking the son down. The duo does a little recruiting of their own, putting together a small team of badasses to help in their endeavor. There’s Jim-Bob Luke, an always-welcome presence to the world of Hap and Leonard, and Tonto, a dangerous man with a violent, mysterious past. This little endeavor brings them in contact with the assassin from which the book draws its name, although it should be noted that Vanilla Ride doesn’t really show up the last fifty pages or so, and we don’t even learn that’s her name until a little after that. It may seem odd, given the book’s title, but the reveal still works in the end. There’s talk early on about high-paid assassins far above the level of anything Hap or Leonard have dealt with up until now, and Ms. Ride certainly lives up to the hype, despite her limited presence. As if the name didn’t tip you off, she’s essentially a James Bond character dropped into the middle of Hap and Leonard’s world, and certainly adds a new flavor that we haven’t seen in the series until now. And if you feel like the character’s brief appearance makes her feel underserved, fret not: Vanilla Ride is a character that we’ll meet again in the future, and learn more of her twisted and interesting past, to boot.

It’s a fun and fast return for Hap and Leonard, and introduces a character that just begs for a return appearance. 

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