Guilty Pleasures, Part I: Joe R. Lansdale’s Vanilla Ride

December 1, 2009

I ran out of new books over the weekend; my review copies of next month’s selections are due any day now, but on the weekend I was forced to raid the vaults, my seriously overflowing bookcase stuffed with trade paperbacks (mostly mysteries) that for one reason or another had not been among those reviewed for the Whodunit column in the past year or so. Left to my own devices, I tend to prefer higher-minded literary tomes such as those of Alexander McCall Smith, Reginald Hill or P.D. James, and if there is something of that ilk available, it would be my hands-down first choice. That said, there is a special place in my heart for the raunchy storytelling chops of a Kinky Friedman, a Carl Hiaasen, or a Tim Dorsey, a tale in which the protagonist is a) a jailbird, b) a con man, c) a potty-mouth redneck, or d) all of the above.

Author Joe R. Lansdale takes it one step further, with not one such protagonist but a pair of wildly funny Texan troublemakers, Hap (Collins) and Leonard (Pine). Hap is a hapless (sorry ‘bout that) ex-con, blue collar white, who displays a weakness for Southern women and a penchant for telling the worst jokes known to mankind (A bandaged dog walks into an Old West Saloon and says “I’m looking for the man who shot my paw…”). Leonard, by contrast, is black, gay, and blisteringly intolerant of Hap’s sense of humor. The two are unlikely best friends, and as such, play off one another like no other duo in contemporary fiction. (If I were casting the two for a movie, I might pick comedian Ron White for Hap, and Eddie Murphy for Leonard; those two ought to be able to do justice to the roles.)

In their latest outing, Vanilla Ride (July 2009; Knopf; ISBN 9780307270979; 256pp; $23.95), the pair find themselves crosswise both with the law and with the Dixie Mafia, and caught in the crosshairs of a stone-cold killer known as Vanilla Ride. It all starts when a friend asks a favor: please rescue my granddaughter from a dope dealer with whom she thinks she is in love. Hap and Leonard take it one step further, flushing a fortune in white powder down the dealer’s commode, thus enraging everyone up and down that particular food chain, not to mention a pair of lethally corrupt small-town cops who serve as protectors and facilitators of the illicit trade. Most of the funnier quotes in the book are unprintable in a general-audience venue such as this, and indeed, if you have any intolerance for cussing on a once-per-page basis, you might want to look elsewhere for your reading enjoyment. That said, Lansdale can pop up with a quote that is incisive and disturbing with equal frequency: “I had looked into the abyss so much it was no longer just looking back at me, it had its arms around me and was puckering for a kiss.” Move over, Mickey Spillane.

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