Monday, December 21, 2009

Master storytelling at work in Lansdale's Mucho Mojo

Today I’m here to sing the praises of one Joe R. Lansdale. I consider him to be one of the finest storytellers of this, and perhaps any, generation. He may not have tremendous literary depth and I'm not implying he's the greatest writer ever, but he tells entertaining, page-turning stories as well as any writer I’ve encountered. The guy is a born raconteur (I love that word).

If you’re an aspiring writer and want to study the craft of writing—pacing, plot, characterization, ratcheting up the tension, breaking it with levity—Lansdale is a master of the art and is well worth studying and learning from. If you enjoy reading entertaining stories well-told, Lansdale is your man.

Lansdale has carved out a nice career as a full-time writer. He’s written episodes for Batman: The Animated Series, stories for comic books (including Jonah Hex, Conan, and The Fantastic Four), and the novella Bubba Ho-Tep, which was adapted for the screen starring The Man, Bruce Campbell. Early in his career Lansdale was pigeonholed as a “splatterpunk” horror author, which is absolutely unfair. He apparently did write some gruesome novels early in his career, and violence punctuates everything I’ve read of his, but while graphic and real it’s not overdone. He’s a man of wide interests and moods (gigantic melancholies and a gigantic mirth, to steal a line from Robert E. Howard) and can’t be boxed off in any one genre. Here’s a link to an interview in which he states that his preferred genre is “the Lansdale genre.” That’s probably the best description of his unique style.

But despite a lengthy career and a laundry list of publishing credits, I get the feeling Lansdale isn’t that well-known. Most of the people I talk to (those that are regular readers, anyway) have never heard of the guy. An Amazon.com editorial review I came across says that Lansdale is something of a “cult writer.” If so, consider myself a junior acolyte of the Lansdale sect. I read my first Lansdale book a good 10 years ago and have only read a handful of his novels since (Savage Season, Freezer Burn, The Drive-In: A Double Feature Omnibus, and The Bottoms), plus some of his short stories. But except for The Drive-In, I’ve found them all to be very, very good.

Mucho Mojo is probably my favorite Lansdale story. It’s the second of his Hap and Leonard novels, which feature two recurring characters in rural East Texas. Hap and Leonard are two of the unlikeliest friends you’ll encounter—Hap is a white, perennially destitute, borderline honkey-tonk democrat, while Leonard is a black, gay, no-nonsense republican. Both are wisecracking, hard-fighting, no-nonsense dudes who get mixed up in a lot of tough business, including breaking up drug rings and solving murder mysteries. They always manage to extricate themselves using a mixture of martial arts, wits, and dogged determination.

There’s so much to recommend about Lansdale, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how darned funny the guy is. Humor is very, very difficult to pull off in the written form, but I smiled on nearly every page of Mucho Mojo. A couple times I laughed out loud.

Here’s a sample passage from chapter two of Mucho Mojo in which Hap and Leonard are attending the funeral of Leonard’s uncle Chester while wearing a pair of bad suits just bought from J.C. Penney:

Time we got to the Baptist church where the funeral was being held, we had sweated up good in our new suits, and the hot wind blowing on me made my hair look as if it had been combed with a bush hog. My overall appearance was of someone who been in a fight and lost.

I got out of the car and Leonard came around and said, “You still got the fucking tag hanging on you.”

I lifted an arm and there was the tag, dangling from the suit sleeve. I felt like Minnie Pearl. Leonard got out his pocket knife and cut it off and we went inside the church.

We paraded by the open coffin, and of course, Uncle Chester hadn’t missed his chance to be guest of honor. He was one ugly sonofabitch, and I figured alive he hadn’t looked much better. He wasn’t very tall, but he was wide, and being dead a few days before they found him hadn’t helped his looks any. The mortician had only succeeded in making him look a bit like a swollen Cabbage Patch Doll.


The basic plot of Mucho Mojo is as follows: After Chester passes away Leonard inherits his home and a bunch of money. He also receives a handful of mysterious items in a safe-deposit box. Among other items, it contains a key to a lock box containing the remains of a child, which is hidden beneath the floorboards of the house. The mystery begins. While Lansdale reveals the killer well before the end of the novel, and telegraphs the bad guys just a bit, I wasn’t bothered. It’s the journey that makes Mucho Mojo worth reading, including the writing, the characters, the setting, and the humor. Along the way Lansdale has a lot to say about racism, bigotry, crime, and poverty.

As I mentioned above, there’s a lot to recommend in Mucho Mojo, but perhaps most of all the characterization and dialogue. Hap and Leonard are well-drawn, and while I don’t know much about Texas or its residents they certainly feel like living, breathing residents of the Lone Star state. They’re pals, and convincingly so. When I closed Mucho Mojo I felt like I was saying goodbye to a pair of old friends with whom I’d just shared great conversation over a few beers. Their dialogue reminds me of that which you’d encounter watching a Quentin Tarantino film (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, etc.) but a bit more grounded and rough around the edges.

I’m looking forward to finally reading the rest of the Leonard and Hap novels, of which the latest, Vanilla Ride, was just published earlier this year.

9 comments:

David J. West said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David J. West said...

I became a fan with Bubba Ho-Tep first and then discovered his Jonah Hex and Conan yarns so I am working a little backwards.

But as usual Brian I like your reviews enough to hunt down more books.

Andy said...

I like Mucho Mojo a good deal but I think my favorite Hap and Leonard book is the next one, The Two-Bear Mambo. Regardless, though, Lansdale's writing is absolutely hilarious (although I think he took a big misstep with Bad Chili and it kind of put me off the Hap and Leonard books for awhile).

I think what's held back Lansdale is that he's regarded as an uncharacterizable author - I've seen almost each one of his books racked in the crime/mystery, horror, and general fiction sections of numerous bookstores, sometimes the same book placed in two different sections at once, which isn't necessarily a problem for the books themselves but it's hard for people to sell them because you can't quite pigeonhole them as any one thing.

Brian Murphy said...

David: Thanks, he's definitely worth hunting down. The good news is that some of his old novels that fell out of print, including the Hap and Leonard series, have just been reissued.

Andy: What happened in Bad Chili, or is too much a spoiler to post here?

I think you're dead-on about Lansdale being hurt by his unique, genre-defying style. You could classify the Hap and Leonard stories as mystery, suspense, horror, and on and on. I get the feeling that most mystery fans like their mysteries "pure," horror fans their horror unadulterated, and so on. Lansdale mixes it altogether like a (in this case, good) chili.

Andy said...

Bad Chili mostly just felt tired to me, and it seemed like Lansdale didn't really have any good ideas for the characters for the book and that he was just writing about them for the sake of doing so. There's still some very good stuff in the book because Lansdale's too good a writer but I felt the book was lacking the inspiration of the previous entries.

I remember him once saying that in the early 90s or so he wrote a book that he's ashamed of because he was just hacking it out because he thought it would help improve his marketability. He never named the book but I have a hunch it was Bad Chili he was talking about.

Scott said...

Brian,

I'm a fan of Lansdale's work,too, but I have yet to get a Hap and Leonard book...guess I need to get to it.

I really liked his short story collections 'High Cotton' and Bumper Crop'. Lots of good stuff in there. I also liked his Jonah Hex miniseries as well.

Hope you have a good Holiday season!

Anonymous said...

hi Brian... I think his novels arent published in Spain... only some of his short stories in modern horror anthologies... I thought he was a horror writer and I used to confuse him with Joe Haldeman... I didnt buy his Conan because it was published in a expensive edition... how is it...? is a good one...?
by the way dont you think the cover of Vanila ride is a not very subtle way to sell a book...;...?

Anonymous said...

Im Francisco...

Brian Murphy said...

Andy: Interesting, and it is true that some authors, due to the nature of their contracts with publishers, are obligated to write X number of books in X period of time. It's possible that Lansdale just banged out Bad Chili out of obligation, though that's pure speculation on my part.

Scott: The time off from work has been great, and much needed. I hope you're having a fine Holiday too.

If you do try a Hap and Leonard book, I'd start with Mucho Mojo. It's the second in the series, but it's written such that you don't have to have read the first, Savage Season. The characters are of course the same but it's completely self-contained. And I liked Mucho Mojo better.

Francisco: Yeah, the cover of Vanilla Ride is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but you can say the same for Lansdale's writing style. He throws it all on the table in a glorious mess.

I have not read his Conan nor his Jonah Hex adaptations, I just know that he's done some comic book writing.