Saturday, December 4, 2010

Lansdale and Keene: Two tastes that taste great together

Over the last couple weeks I’ve managed to plow through two of Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series of novels and Brian Keene’s City of the Dead. I enjoyed the heck out of all of them and thought I’d write a combined review here.

(As an aside, my posting has recently suffered quite a bit, and that’s because the high school team I’ve been covering for the local paper is playing in the Super Bowl today. From Thankgiving through the playoffs, Massachusetts high school football is crazy. I plan to get back to posting on a more regular schedule).

As I’ve said before, Joe Lansdale tells a story as well as any author writing today. Reading one of his books is like listening to a weathered Texan grandfather who saw time in the South Pacific in the Big One spinning raw war stories seasoned with equal parts humor and horror.

The two books I read were The Two-Bear Mambo and Bad Chili. In The Two-Bear Mambo Hap and Leonard set out to find Florida Grange, Leonard’s gorgeous ex-girlfriend. Florida disappeared while investigating the suspicious suicide of a black criminal, found dead in his jail cell in the Ku Klux Klan infested town of Grovetown.

Hap and Leonard are both martial arts experts and The Two-Bear Mambo features a memorable fight in a Grovetown diner that Lansdale describes as an episode of The Andy Griffith Show by way of Deliverance. Lansdale’s fights aren’t the stylized, dramatized stuff of Quentin Tarantino films, but short, fast, ugly, and dirty.

Lansdale always kicks off his books with a gripping action scene that combines drama with comedy. In The Two-Bear Mambo Leonard has just set fire to a crack house across the street, spilling a motley assortment of low-lifes into the East Texas night. Bad Chili features the two men attacked by a rabid squirrel while taking target practice in the woods with a pistol. Yes, I’m serious.

Bad Chili took a while to heat up (pardon the pun) but I very much enjoyed the slow, deliberate pace with which Lansdale sets up its frenetic payoff of a finish. In this one, Leonard’s boyfriend Raul leaves him for a biker and when both turn up dead the police point the finger at Leonard. He and Hap begin an investigation into the death that exposes an underground crime ring of violent gay pornography and larceny.

You have experience to fully appreciate Lansdale’s always-entertaining writing style. Here’s a description of a barber-shop owner from Bad Chili that I found hilarious and also brilliant in its details, immediately sketching a believable, real character:

Finally a man came over to help us. He was short and pale-skinned and had his dark hair combed back tight and plastered with something so shiny you could almost see your reflection in it. He had one of those pencil-thin mustaches like forties movie stars wore, ones make you look like you had a drink of chocolate milk and forgot to wipe your mouth. He had his colorful shirt open almost to his navel, and let me tell you, that was no treat to view. He had a chest like a bird and a little potbelly and a thin straight line of hair that ran from chest to navel and looked as if it had been provided by the nose hairs the blonde had clipped. He was wearing a gold medallion on a chain around his neck. The medallion reminded me of those aluminum-foil coins you unwrap and find chocolate inside. He must have been on the bad side of forty. A face, a body like that, you’re not born with it. It takes some real abuse and neglect to create.

As with all the two other Hap and Leonard novels I’ve read to date (Savage Season and Mucho Mojo), The Two-Bear Mambo and Bad Chili are highly recommended. I’m looking forward to picking up Rumble Tumble next.

City of the Dead is an absolutely gonzo novel. Graphic gore and sex, morbid humor, religious issues, cosmic tragedy, and more are splashed all over its pages in an entertaining package, albeit not one for the easily offended or the faint of heart.

Keene takes the familiar trope of zombie apocalypse but instead of attributing the cause to biochemical spill or ancient curse or interstellar plague Keene’s zombies are possessed by the souls of demons from the void. When they inhabit the bodies of the dead they take on the deceased person’s memories, which them doubly dangerous. In City of the Dead zombies can speak, use guns, drive cars, communicate and coordinate their tactics, etc. Animals, including dogs, birds, alligators, are zombified, too. Humans don’t stand a chance in this scenario.

A small group of humans manages to fight their way into New York to take refuge in Ramsey Tower, a reportedly indestructible skyscraper where a few hundred human survivors have holed up. The tower is a fortress, but the humans have underestimated the zombies’ intelligence and force they ultimately bring to bear to force an entry.

Keene’s book is full of morbidly funny humor: A zombie sings “the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire” after setting fire to a home with human defenders on the second floor. A zombie, ready to throw a grenade, has his hand shot off, and the grenade falls at his feet and explodes, blowing him to bits. “Now that’s what I call a hand grenade!” another zombie quips. Think of Army of Darkness level of humor.

At the same time the book takes seriously the existence of God and the demons that inhabit the bodies of the zombies. Called the Sissquim, they once walked the Earth but were banished to the outer spheres by God millennia ago. As a result they despise God and kill and eat humans out of that spite. They want to see His most beloved creation and the planet itself utterly destroyed.

City of the Dead is marred by a few lapses in logic. The zombies at times are portrayed as attacking in mindless waves, like Romero-style zombies; at other times they operate with a sense of self-preservation and shy away from shotgun blasts and so forth. The humans defending Ramsey Tower—some of which are hard-bitten military veterans with combat experience—woefully overestimate the building’s defenses, holes that are obvious to any half-attentive reader (the damn building has windows—even though they’re reinforced glass, how can they stand up to a zombie-driven truck at full speed, let alone explosives?)

If City of the Dead sounds a little like a mess, well, it is. I’m not sure how Keene intended the book to be read, as farce or serious fiction. It’s both (probably a little more of the former), but if you’re looking for a book that tells a rip-roaring, entertaining story, City of the Dead succeeds. I listened to the Audio Realms production while driving to work and I can honestly say it made my commute a much more enjoyable experience.


Anonymous said...

Haven't read Bad Chili but I have read the other Hap and Leonard books. Lansdale's pretty funny and his characters are irreverent without being annoying.
I've read Keene's Darkness on the Edge of town and although I think he's good at concept and plot his dialogue and structure fall apart. The irreverence of his characters actually made me read the book over a week which I wouldn't have done had he been able to hold my attention. The guy needs an editor, at least a better one. He is interesting but fails to engage.
Maybe its just me, but the experienced writer like Lansdale knows how to remove redundant sentences and the experienced reader knows how to spot them.

Anonymous said...

"Walden was still there. That hadn’t changed. Our homes and stores and schools, our pets and loved ones, our cherished keepsakes and personal belongings, our streets and sidewalks—all of those still existed"
I'm belaboring the point, but this paragraph from Keene's Darkness on the Edge of Town is a prime example. I could read through my copy for tons more, lots of "I guess"-es and "I suppose"-es that turn me off as a reader.
I'm being an insufferable nitpicker, but the first person POV doesn't do Mr. Keene any favors. I'm tempted to throw my copies of Tim Powers books at him.
I may change my mind after I finish reading Conquerer Worm though.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comments, Anonymous. I also wouldn't put Keene in the class of a Lansdale or a Stephen King, but I liked City of the Dead enough that I'd pick up The Rising. Good popcorn-y fun.