Novel November

Honky Tonk Samurai

by Joe R. Lansdale

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe R. Lansdale

Oh man, oh man. A new Hap and Leonard novel. Always a cause for celebration. Will there be guns and ultra-violence? Will Leonard overreact in his usual fashion and catapult him and Hap into a ruckus they can only punch their way out of? Will Hap ponder the senselessness of a cold, unfriendly universe that so often requires him to kill in order to protect his loved ones? Will he dish out the death anyway? You bet.

For their ninth full-length novel, the East Texas duo continue their previous occupations as private investigators, stumbling and punching their way from a simple divorce case, to a search for a missing person, to a prostitution and blackmail ring, to an murderous family of redneck in-breds. Lansdale knows how to write an action scene, knows how to stage a fight. Being a martial arts hall of famer, he knows his holds and kicks, what separates the seasoned fighter from the flailing blowhard. With his heroes, he presents two sides of violence. Leonard is the self-righteous one with no qualms about taking down a bully or taking out a murderer. Hap's conscience plagues him, and he sleeps fretfully, thinking maybe situations could have been handled with a heartfelt debate rather than a shotgun or a foot to the face. Different as they are, these two are brothers of the blood. Mess with one, and you can expect the other very shortly, followed by a payload of pain and a speedy reconsideration of your previous stance.

The plot unspools in the usual fashion for these guys, one random bad choice after another. Staking out a possibly cheating husband, Leonard witnesses an ignorant dude kicking a dog. Dude quickly learns exactly what that feels like, and an old lady videos Leonard practicing his brand of obedience training on the dog's owner. She uses the video to persuade Hap and Leonard to take on the cold case of her missing granddaughter. The granddaughter was last seen working at a car dealership that also includes a high-end hooker with each automobile. Hap and Leonard attempt to infiltrate undercover, but they bungle that in their customary, hilarious fashion. The outrageous story Leonard spins becomes a running joke for most of the story. Hitting a dead-end, the boys call on contacts from the growing list of secondary characters that Lansdale has been introducing over the years. Fans will be happy to see the return of Jim Bob Luke, the only man able to out-raunch Leonard. Soon they are eyeball-deep in trouble, facing down a gang of angry bikers and on the run from a killer named the Canceler who collects bloody trophies from his victims.

Of course, being a Lansdale book, the action and plot are often sidelined by snappy, whimsical conversations about dogs, cookies, relationships, sex, and the best color to paint a jail cell. It's these types of moments that have endured the characters to me, the reason I keep coming back, why I fear between novels that the last might have been the very last. There's a wonderful pause near the end of this book, just before the boys and their posse of misfits besiege a compound of killers, when Hap and Leonard take a moment to feel the breeze and watch the sunset. This may be the last sunset they ever see, and they spend it with each other, at first in conversation, then in silence. Tension builds, and the reader wonders, not for the first time, if Hap and Leonard will make it out alive. Sure, the TV series based on the books just started, so maybe there's incentive for Lansdale to keep the novels going, but he's killed off protagonists in other books—even the actual narrator in one—so all bets are off.

If I had to raise any complaint at all over this book, it would be that with all the minor characters, Hap and Leonard don't get to spend as much time in conversation together as in other entries. But that's a minor gripe, and I only bring it up to make a point that it's hard to find anything wrong here. Some may say there's too much violence and cursing, but that's like complaining that a roller coaster has too many hills and goes too fast.

There are three occurrences in Honky Tonk Samurai that I wish I could discuss here, but I refuse to spoil them for you. Even hiding behind the scary flank of Spoiler Pig, you might be tempted to peek, and I don't want to be the one who ruins a Hap and Leonard book for you. I'd sooner spoil Watchmen than do that. Of those three occurrences, one is a new character, one is a decision Hap has to make, and the other is the ending. All I'll say is that all three events had me riveted to the page cheering for the right outcome. This book paves the way for some major changes in the lives of our two favorite tough guys. The next book—dear god, let there be a next book—will be a bigger event than ever. I'll celebrate with some vanilla cookies and Dr Peppers.

old timey typewriter

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