Humor, death fill ‘Vanilla Ride’

  I first became acquainted with the horror fiction of Joe R. Lansdale back during the late ’80s and early ’90s. It wasn’t until the year 2000, however, that I actually read something by him. The book was “The Bottoms,” and it blew me away. A few months later, author John Connolly (creator of the fabulous “Charlie Parker” series) paid me a visit when he was in Las Vegas to promote his newest novel. He was looking at the books on my shelves and saw “The Bottoms.” He picked it up and said, “This is a great novel.” He then asked if I’d ever read any of Lansdale’s Hap Collins/Leonard Pine novels. I told him no, and he ordered me to get a few, saying they would have me laughing out loud while delivering a solid story of suspense and redneck violence.
  I took Connolly’s advice and ordered every Hap/Leonard book that Lansdale had written up to that point, and started reading the series from the middle outward, beginning with “Bad Chili.” The first chapter of that book had me laughing so hard that I got stomach cramps and almost fell off the couch. The novel also made me wonder how someone could write a book like “The Bottoms” and then turn around and write a novel like “Bad Chili,” which is about a pair of good ol’ Texas boys (think Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson), who always get more than they bargained for whenever they help out their friends.
  Hap is a white laid back, former Vietnam activist who served some time in prison for his beliefs. Leonard is an angry, black, gay Vietnam vet, who’s studied martial arts and wants to right every wrong that he comes across. By the end of “Bad Chili,” I was in love with these two characters and wanted to read every single book in the series, which I did in less than two weeks in 2001.
  I’ve been waiting eight years for the next Hap/Leonard book to come out and during that time Lansdale has written some of the best literature to come out of the state of Texas — “A Fine Dark Line” and “Sunset and Sawdust” — along with a number of western novels, some fantasy, a ton of short story collections, and a number of mainstream thriller novels such as “Lost Echoes” and “Leather Maidens.”
  Now the new Hap Collins and Leonard Pine novel, “Vanilla Ride,” is out. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. I personally think it’s the best Hap/Leonard novel that Lansdale has written so far. This was a book I couldn’t put down. It had me laughing out loud in a dozen places, not to mention wanting to hide when characters like the Big Guy came onto the scene. I couldn’t have asked for a truer Hap/Leonard tale than “Vanilla Ride” to make up for all the lost years away from the boys. It made me want to sit down and have some vanilla wafers and a couple of Dr. Peppers with them, and to talk about those years and what had been happening.
  “Vanilla Ride” begins when Leonard and ex-homicide detective Marvin Hanson show up at Hap’s house. Hap is in the middle of having some fun with his buxom, redheaded girlfriend, Brett, and has to quickly slip into his bathrobe and bunny slippers to let in his buddies. It seems that Marvin’s granddaughter has taken up with a drug-dealing crowd, and Marvin would like Hap and Leonard’s assistance in getting her back. Being that Marvin’s an ex-cop and still wounded from a recent injury, there’s little he can do to help, other than to offer his blessings. That’s enough for Hap and Leonard. After being stagnant for several months, they’re ready for a little action and getting the granddaughter out of the hands of some drug-dealing trailer trash doesn’t sound too difficult. And, it isn’t. Hap and Leonard kick butt and take names, flushing all the drugs they find down the toilet, and in the process, rescuing Marvin’s granddaughter. That, however, isn’t the end of it.
  What Hap and Leonard soon discover is that the small operation belonged to the Dixie Mafia, and the big, mean guys at the top don’t like their people being messed with by a couple of redneck cowboys. They send enforcers to take care of Hap and Leonard, but a lot of people end up dead and it isn’t our two wayward heroes. That’s when the two wisecracking Texans are offered a deal by the local police and the FBI to help bring down the Dixie Mafia. Of course, Hap and Leonard can’t expect any help from the authorities, but if they want to stay out of jail for killing the bad guys, then they need to take the offer and run. This will lead them to having to face some of the most violent criminals of their career, especially one man named Big Guy, who scared the dickens out of me. And, if these guys can’t handle Hap and Leonard, well, there’s the ultimate killing machine, Vanilla Ride, who always completes her contracts with the Mob. No one has ever gotten away from her alive, but then again, this is Hap and Leonard, and she’s never encountered anyone like these two smart alecks who don’t seem to take anything seriously, even their lives. Still, both men might have met their match with the Dixie Mafia and Vanilla Ride.
  As I mentioned to someone else a couple of days ago, reading “Vanilla Ride” was more fun than rolling down a hill with a bunch of armadillos. I began laughing the minute Leonard noticed his friend’s bunny slippers and started making sarcastic comments about them. This is pure Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson banter, and nobody could play Hap and Leonard better than these two actors.
  With regards to the book and the series, perhaps nobody can better capture the southeast portion of Texas better than Lansdale with its continuous energy, its people, the utter sense of melancholy that seems to permeate the poorer sections of the state, the pride felt by native Texans, and the rampant sense of richness and complexity that arises in each story, not to mention the inner essence of redneck banter that is as true to the ear as any dialogue written by an author.
  Lansdale is the Edgar Rice Burroughs and Louis L’Amore of the 21st century in his ability to tell a good yarn that stays with you long after the story has ended. Lansdale knows the meaning of entertaining his readers and never forgets that fact when offering insights that deal with racism, homosexuality, the government with all of its false promises, and a friendship that outshines everything else. The Hap/Leonard series is some of the best writing in America today, and after reading a couple of the books, you too will want to sit down with them for some vanilla wafers and Dr. Pepper. But pray that you don’t hog the cookies and soda because Leonard will quickly put you in your place while Hap sits there with a big grin on his face, thinking about Brett and the night ahead.   

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