Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

Joe R. Lansdale

Joe R. Lansdale

Let me share with you my favorite opening sentence of any novel:

When I got over to Leonard's Christmas Eve night, he had the Kentucky Headhunters turned way up over at his place, and they were singing "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," and Leonard, in a kind of Christmas celebration, was once again setting fire to the house next door.

That's from The Two-Bear Mambo by Joe R. Lansdale. I first read it in an issue of Cemetery Dance magazine, which published the first chapter as a preview of the upcoming book, and when I read that opening sentence, I was hooked like a school kid on sugar.

The Two-Bear Mambo is the third in an ongoing series of books about two of the most memorable fictional characters you'll ever meet: Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. One white and straight, the other black and gay, they kick more ass than Conan, curse more than Holden Caulfield, and get into more trouble than the Hardy Boys. Shotguns, fistfights, Klansmen, rabid squirrels, you name it, they've faced it down and come out the other end, sometimes limping, often times bleeding, but their loyalty to one another means if one is deep in the caca, the other has to dive in after.

Joe's self-styled brand of mojo storytelling is fast paced and hard hitting, until it stops in mid-plot for a long conversation. But you'll never find better dialog. It would be wrong to say his characters talk like normal people (truth be told, you really don't want to read a conversation between normal people on a normal day) but they certainly are earthy. Curse words fly faster than in rap songs, in formations even sailors haven't attempted yet. And Joe ain't afraid of taboos. I bet any of the Hap and Leonard books could rival Huck Finn for its use of the word "nigger."

But looking past the adventure and intentionally barbed dialog, you'll find an engaging, confident voice as unique as any of the classical masters. Joe's stories are almost always tinted by the filter of his East Texas upbringing. Hence the ever-present theme of racism, the larger than life similes, details like a man fishing through an open sewage pipe for his lost dentures, the weather that often becomes a character in its own right, sweeping onstage for a climax of lightning and flood water.

If his characters sometimes seem like modern day Pecos Bills, burning crack houses instead of saddling whirlwinds, their strengths are tempered with emotional shortcomings. Hap, the narrator of the Hap and Leonard books, is stuck in a rut of low-paying menial jobs, has trouble keeping a girlfriend, and can never say no whenever a woman asks him anything. The heroine of Sunset and Sawdust shoots her husband as he tries to rape her, but later is taken in completely by a handsome man who tells her exactly what she wants to hear. It's the juxtaposition of steel and clay that makes for memorable characters.

And it's the mingling of full throttle adventure and introspective conversation that makes each of Joe's books a full course, deep-fried, cholesterol-soaked meal.

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Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

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