After being literally hunted for sport by madmen last time out in 'Briar Patch Boogie', I have to point out that I'm a little surprised that they're out fishing again in 'Hoodoo Harry', published later in the same year, 2016. However, it's a smooth ride this time out, at least until they leave with their haul. It's on the drive back that their truck is hit head on by a bookmobile driven by a twelve-year-old black kid struggling to keep it under control and generally failing. Into the creek they go, upside down and with the weight of the bus inexorably crushing them.
Well, given that all that happens on page one, it's fair to say that I can highlight that they do make it out, though the kid is already dead when they find him. Fast forward a little ways and they attend the boy's funeral. He's James Clifton and he came from a community named Nesbit, a black community of a couple of hundred residents descended from the survivors of a racist massacre in the late 1800s. It's without official law and it's a place where things disappear. The bookmobile, for instance, was run by a lady called Harriet Hoodalay, around all the local communities, until both of them vanished fifteen years earlier. She became known as the Hoodoo Harry of the title until she was forgotten. Until that bookmobile ran over Hap and Leonard, it was forgotten too.
This is a glorious way to kick off a Hap and Leonard novella. It's wildly unlikely but characterful in the extreme and, quite frankly, precisely the sort of thing we expect to happen to Hap and Leonard, if not to anyone else. That's because, to anyone else, this would be a once in a lifetime occasion to generate family stories for generations. These things do happen. We read about them in the papers often. Of course, they happen to Hap and Leonard all the time, and that's what makes them special. Incidents like this one are believable when read in isolation, like this novella. They only become outrageous in tandem, when we realise that every time they go out fishing, something like this happens to them.
I ain't complaining, by the way. It merely turns them into folkloric characters in the sort of stories told by east Texans on porches late at night over beer. We don't believe a word of them, but one day we're amazed to discover that most of what we heard was true, except each of the stories really happened to different people who, over time and re-telling, morphed into the immortal Hap and Leonard. I like that approach and it's a natural one for a born storyteller like Joe R. Lansdale. Never mind the books he writes, just listen to him talk at a convention. To him, every conversation is an east Texan porch at night with beer.
Anyway, the story grows naturally out of this beginning as if it was always alive and merely needed a writer to type it onto the page. Our intrepid heroes who never know any better investigate. The boy was brought up by his grandparents and they recently died. He floated around the couches of friends and family, but his body was malnourished. And tortured. And, as they take a look at the bookmobile, they open up the hull at the back that usually contains a large gas tank and find that this one instead contains five tiny and ancient corpses and a larger one for good measure, all preserved in oil.
"You can bet that threw a wrench into things," writes Hap and, ever a master of understatement, he ain't wrong. It's Hanson's case now, of course, but Brett spurs them into action by telling her man to "Just look up the old route of the bookmobile, and follow it." Sure, Hanson's already done that, but a word keeps coming up to describe Hap and Leonard and that word is "dogged". She also has them go to the Camp Rapture newspaper and talk to Mercury, the conspiracy theory aficionado who runs the morgue there. And, with all that introduction, off we go to Nesbit to turn over rocks and see if there are any secrets underneath them.
You won't be shocked, I'm sure, to discover that there are and naturally they're not pretty, but this is a treat of a novella to read. Lansdale's prose has always been sparse and to the point, conversational in tone and as natural as can be, but 'Hoodoo Harry' is especially smooth. I don't listen to audiobooks but reading this felt like someone was sitting in my office telling me a story. The only time it departs from that natural feel is when Leonard gets particularly descriptive. I'm not sure anyone can actually say, "I'm so hungry I could eat the ass out of a menstruating mule" and make it sound natural.
Maybe this one could have done with a little more in between the investigation and Hap's realisation of where to find the answers, but it didn't need much more. Maybe I was just enjoying this particular ride so much that I didn't want it to end as soon as it did and that's my problem not Lansdale's. They do suggest to leave the punters wanting more rather than less. I certainly wanted another scene with Tom Hoodalay, Harriet's tough and abusive husband, but I can't argue that it was needed.
From a series perspective, this feels seamlessly grounded in the Hap and Leonard world we've come to know. Brett and Marvin get a few scenes each. Mercury gets a good one. There are brief mentions too for others like Cason Statler, Chance and Buffy the dog. They don't have parts to play here, so it's fine that they don't get anything to do, but it's good to know that they're still around. Through it all, there's only one movement forward and that's in Leonard's love life. John is finally a memory and he has hooked up with Officer Carroll now. That could make future stories interesting.
And, talking of future stories, this effortless but rewarding novella doesn't end Lansdale's focus on a much shorter page count for Hap and Leonard. If you recall, this follows 'Briar Patch Boogie', which was a novelette and, on the other side of the previous novel, 'Honky Tonk Samurai', lay two novellas, 'Hyenas' and 'Dead Aim'. Well, there's another novella up next, 'Coco Butternut', which I'll tackle in October. And then it's back to novels, starting with 2017's 'Rusty Puppy'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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