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Book Review: Vanilla Ride by Joe R. Lansdale

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Reading one of Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard East Texas crime novels always brings tears to my eyes. I’m not crying. I’m laughing so hard that I’m near busting a gut. He’s just that funny, that rednecked, and that insanely offensive in everything he puts on the page.

Vanilla Ride is the first Hap and Leonard novel that’s come down the pipe in a while, and I have to admit that I was somewhat antsy we might not see any more books about the two ne'er-do-wells that have so captured my imagination. Joe’s a busy guy and likes to have a lot of irons in the fire, from screenplays to comics to short stories to novels about crime and novels about horror. In the meantime, he runs his own martial arts dojo, where he’s invented his own style that’s been recognized in the martial arts community.

Joe’s a friend, and I like him and his way of thinking a lot, so you’ll have to forgive me. We grew up around (and probably were) the same kind of miscreants, troublemakers, and rabble-rousers that he writes about. We both know small town minds and ways, and both of us can pass for socialized individuals for hours at a time. But we ain’t never truly moved away from those small towns.

At any rate, that’s the background that Joe always brings to his book. The way he writes it? That’s the way it is. Oh, the running gun battles, bar brawls, and body count is probably exaggerated a little, but that’s to be expected of a first-rate small town storyteller if he’s to keep the attention of his audience.

Vanilla Ride starts off as a favor for Marvin Hanson, another series regular. Hanson’s granddaughter has holed up with a drug dealer and Marvin already threw the guy a beating that didn't take. Since the guy has surrounded himself with thugs, Marvin knows he’s going to subcontract the next butt-kicking to a couple of guys that kind of enjoy the work and don’t flinch at the prospect.

Hap and Leonard, with all the customary name-calling, philosophizing, and backbiting that has become their trademark, get the job done. But things just get worse from there. Before long, they’re up to their eyebrows in alligators (literally at one point) and the Dixie Mafia. Things get so bad they even have to call in another couple of hard guys to help tote the load.

The plot is pretty straightforward and builds naturally to a roaring bonfire and even an Old West High Noon shootout, but it’s Joe’s way of telling the story that really shines. His prose is lurid, descriptive, and a lot of readers are going to have to resist the impulse to read passages or one-liners out loud because it just won’t set well in public. And sometimes you have to really be there in the moment to get what’s going on.

His dialogue is dead on. But it’s his focus on the friendship between his two heroes that really shines, as it does in every book. Leonard Pine is black and homosexual, and always in the middle of trouble that’s caught up to him or he’s instigated. Hap Collins is white and not overly upwardly mobile or even ambitious. But the two are as true to each other and what they believe in, even when they’re stepping on each other’s toes, as magnetic north.

On the surface, Vanilla Ride is a lightweight action read with a lot of humorous overtones and larger-than-life characters. But Lansdale always piles in a lot of commentary about life and the human race that climbs in under the carpet when nobody’s looking. I just wish I’d gotten to meet the enigmatic Vanilla Ride longer. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ll be getting reacquainted with her soon. I just have to hope she doesn’t blow holes in Hap and Leonard.

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