Like most of Nacogdoches-based Joe R. Lansdale’s work, Vanilla Ride is set in East Texas. More Flannery O’Connor than Elmer Kelton, East Texas is not the landscape most people envision when thinking of the Lone Star State. Its tightly looped Bible Belt contains dense pine forests, humid swamps and dry counties. Add the region’s troubled racial history—its cotton fields held slaves during the 19th century—and its poor economic health, and you get a setting rife with potential drama, imagined and real.
Although he’s written horror, science fiction and Westerns, Lansdale’s most successful series is the Hap and Leonard books, set in the dark heart of the noir detective genre. As Mark Twain employed the detective trope to study 19th century U.S. racial mores in Puddn’head Wilson, the Hap and Leonard books explore questions of race, sexuality and religion in modern red-state America. Hap is a white heterosexual good old boy. Leonard is a black homosexual Vietnam vet. The former is introspective and diplomatic. The latter busts heads and sorts details later. The two are best friends, but conflict is in store for the outrageous duo just around the next pine tree.
The plot of Vanilla Ride, the series’ seventh installment, is thin, loose and largely inconsequential—the real draw is Lansdale’s dialogue and social insight. The book begins with the duo rescuing a friend’s daughter from drug dealers. When the latter turn out to be members of the Dixie Mafia, the organization sends a succession of assassins in retaliation. The deadliest turns out to be a beautiful blonde named Vanilla Ride.
Lansdale captures a region fallen on hard times. Ushered in by the Spindletop well outside of Beaumont in 1901, the East Texas oil field production has decreased in recent decades, leaving fewer high-paying jobs. Chronicling the fictitious town of No Enterprise, likely a thinly veiled reference to Rusk County’s Mount Enterprise, Lansdale describes a dying small town whose younger generation has long since departed for better opportunities. As East Texas is the wettest part of the state, he utilizes its rain and storm clouds to establish ominous moods and foreshadow violence:
As we arrived in No Enterprise it started to rain heavy and the sky took on a hazy green look like nature had vomited into the heavens. The wind hit the truck hard enough to move it. Looking at the town through wet swaths made by the wipers, it was even more depressing, a weak hope thrown together with brick and glass. Someone thought the railroad would come through there many years ago, and it didn’t. What was left now was nothing more than a hope and dream.
Hap and Leonard eke out a living doing freelance detective work. Told with Hap’s wry outlook, Vanilla Ride‘s first-person narrative gives a running commentary on the story. Lansdale’s action sequences are of the sort found in ’80s movies billed with single names—Schwarzenegger, Stallone—yet they remain interesting for their humor. In the midst of a chase sequence, Hap pauses to take note of a house’s yard decorations. This snippet underscores Hap’s progressive leanings, which are continually counterbalanced by Leonard’s Republican positions:
I turned quick, bumped over a curb, went through a lawn, bashed a couple of yard gnomes and a pink flamingo, which might be considered a public service … and took out a yard swing, a birdbath, and a Vote-for-Some-Republican sign. I gave myself an extra two points for that.
Lansdale often references current events in the storyline. After Hap and Leonard kill a couple of carloads of Dixie Mafia members in a chase sequence, they are outfitted in pink jumpsuits and confined to a pink cell reminiscent of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s color tactics. Musing on the pink strategy, Hap decides it doesn’t work:
Some redneck decides to shoot his wife over the fact she burned his squirrel potpie, I could hardly believe he’d be considering before the deed: Well, damn. I better hold up on this killing. I stick a broom handle up Bessie’s nose, set her on fire and shoot her eye out, I’ll have to wear pink and sit in a pink room, and them’s girl colors. What if the fellas see me?
Between the B-movie set pieces, Vanilla Ride‘s characters drink coffee and philosophize in Tarantino-esque soliloquies. The dialogue is blunt, funny and decidedly un-PC. Lansdale flips stereotypes on their heads and then spins them sideways. A gay black cowboy and existential good old boy, Leonard and Hap are literary originals. They give unusual depth to a plot that otherwise might invite caricatures, and they allow Lansdale to explore contentious social issues. In one scene, Leonard tells Hap that Leonard’s boyfriend has dumped him in an attempt to become straight, placate his family and become a better Christian. Lansdale uses the exchange to muse on an intolerance more insidious than his cartoonish Dixie Mafia assassins:
“John’s brother hates him because he’s gay. He tells him he doesn’t have to be gay. He’s telling him God doesn’t want him gay. … I’ve tried to tell him that even if there is a God, the New Testament is the one to go by, and it’s not tough on us queers. It’s just the old mean version of God that gives us a hard time.””God must have finally got laid between the Old and the New Testament,” I said. “‘Cause between those two books, he sure mellowed out.””Who’d he lay, male or female?”
When not ruminating on religion, Lansdale wears his fanboy heart on his karate outfit sleeve. In addition to writing, he teaches his own brand of martial arts from a Nacogdoches dojo. It shows in his books. Some fight descriptions are so over the top, they’d make Chuck Norris wince. In sync with the cartoonish violence, comic book talk often arises in Vanilla Ride. Hap and Leonard discuss which is cooler, Marvel Comics or DC. Pursued by bad guys on a return trip to East Texas from Arizona, they stop in Cross Plains to visit Conan the Barbarian author Robert E. Howard’s house.
The book’s weakest link is its sophomoric, crude humor. Jokes involving bodily functions and needlessly foul language constitute too much of the protagonists’ banter. Perhaps this is symptomatic of Lansdale’s larger preoccupation with society’s marginalized. His characters are outsiders living in a region that suffers from cultural schizophrenia. Not quite Southern and not quite Texan, East Texas is a difficult land to capture. Like Michael Dougan, whose graphic novel East Texas: Tales From Behind the Pine Curtain is a largely unknown gem, Lansdale gets it right. While skewering the area for its ignorance, racism and close-minded religion, he also appreciates its hardworking ethic and lack of pretense. His protagonists might buy their shoes at Payless and live in trailer parks, but they share a friendship strong enough to risk their lives for each other.
A swampy melting pot of race, East Texas is more egalitarian than the popular media cares to portray. The area has its share of rednecks, thugs and holier-than-thou mean old ladies. But most people lean more toward libertarianism. They want to do their own thing and be left alone. Lansdale symbolizes the region’s individualism with Hap and Leonard. Basic decency means more than race or sexuality. Laughter is the common bond.
Stayton Bonner is a writer in Austin.