Novel November

Rusty Puppy

by Joe R. Lansdale

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Rusty Puppy by Joe R. Lansdale

Here we are twenty-something years after Hap and Leonard debuted, and the guys are famous. They have a hit TV show, and Lansdale can barely keep up with the demand for more and more H&L reading material. I can't wait for the inevitable Hap and Leonard, expletive-filled conversation about Donald Trump.

Picking up right where the previous book ended, Hap explains he didn't die from the stabbing that took place in those last couple pages. The narrative skips over most of the convalescence and therapy required for a major injury, and Hap is right back at his job as a private eye by chapter two. A woman hires the guys to solve her son's murder, claiming the local police had a hand in his death. The police in her neighborhood, are mostly white, mostly racist, and extremely crooked. The guys investigate like real detectives this time, interviewing witnesses and following leads and clues. Their usual method has always been to piss off a bunch of people till the culprits got angry enough to come out from hiding, but this go-round they act like true P. I.s. This leads to a butting of heads with dirty cops, incompetent thugs, and a mouthy kid Leonard nicknames “the 500-year-old vampire.” The infantile, insulting banter between Leonard and the little girl is a highlight of the book. So is Leonard's reaction when the girl is mistreated. You'll want to shake his hand and buy him some cookies.

There are plenty of fist fights here, including a final throwdown fans have been speculating on for years. Leonard gets himself into a boxing duel. Police Chief Marvin Hansen has to bail the guys out of trouble. There's a lot here we've seen before, which is not to say more of the same isn't welcome. Hap and Leonard books are practically a genre of their own, complete with certain rules and requirements, but Lansdale isn't painting by numbers. I'd never say that, mostly because he never would, but also because there's as small chance he might read this review, find me, and turn the phone on which I'm writing this into a suppository. He's not on autopilot, he's just not stretching as much as I know he can.

This is the part where I complain about a Joe R. Lansdale book, and I kinda hate myself for doing it. But I think I have a legitimate beef. One of the big reveals in the previous book, one I didn't want to give away then, is Hap finds out he has a daughter. My own daughter had just been born a few months before, and I was stoked to finally have something in common with one of my fictional heroes. The last book was understandably a transition into Hap's new role as father, and he began to shift from disbelief to acceptance. I just knew that this book would have him fully engaged in fatherly duties, doling out advice to a teenager on how to deal with what life throws at her. But no. Both Hap’s daughter and girlfriend retreat into the background as he and Leonard dole out punches to chunky meatheads. The two women are stricken with the flu and lay low the whole novel, shuffling out of bed a few times to remind the reader Hap has a family to protect then ducking back under the covers. It's a writer's trick to keep your cast of characters low. I recognized it immediately, and right away I was worried I wouldn't get my fix of fatherly advice. I liked the book. Don't think I didn't. Are you reading this, Joe? I liked your book. Please don't give me a endoscopy with my own Motorola. It's just, I was really looking forward to seeing how the second-hardest dude in East Texas handles having a daughter.

Let me end on a positive note. There's a passage in Rusty Puppy that is beautiful and haunting and heartbreakingly cruel. It's about the Robin Hood Tree. Long-time readers will remember that tree. It grew on the property behind Leonard's old place, an old tree as thick around as a bridge abutment. The guys used it as a meeting place, a refuge. In the passage here, we flashback to them lying in the crook of a wide limb, sleeping beneath the stars in the winter or a canopy of leaves in the summer. It's a perfect sanctuary from the noises and demands of the city. Till a lumber company cuts it down and feeds it to the saw. It's a beautiful description of an innocent thing corrupted and destroyed, and it hurt my heart. The have been several trees in my life that have offered me solace, and I've referred to them as Robin Hood trees because of Lansdale. The passage reminded me of the death of the unicorn in T. H. White's Once and Future King. A thing of perfection treated with thoughtless brutality. I told Lansdale how I loved his description, how it affected me. I reached him through Twitter, and he clicked the heart button and said “Thank you.” He regularly corresponds with his fans through social media. He's a kind, generous dude who gives part of his time to the people who love his work. You can see why I would treasure any parenting advice he might give, even through the proxy of a middle-aged private investigator who once set up a sniper rifle on a hill and murdered the boss of a drug cartel. Maybe next time.

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