Let me open with a disclaimer: I really, really, really love the “Hap and Leonard” series. I mean, to be fair, I pretty much love Joe Lansdale’s writing in general; the man is funny, offbeat, unpredictable, and just a great storyteller. And whether he’s writing a coming of age story set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in Texas, a gonzo horror epic that ends up being one of the most gleefully weird stories I’ve ever read, or dazzling you with his sheer range in a short story collection, I have yet to read a Lansdale book that I didn’t love every moment of.
But there’s something genuinely special about the Hap and Leonard series, which follows a pair of unlikely friends as they continually get tangled up in violent, dangerous situations. Hap Collins is a white Vietnam War protester – a man who went to jail rather than serve in the military during that conflict. Meanwhile, Leonard is a gay black veteran, a man who loves Vanilla Wafers, goes through relationships quickly, and has a notoriously short temper. And the two of them are best friends. There’s never been an explanation, a setup for this, and really, that’s for the best; these two men simply trust each other, and they have each other’s backs, and they love each other, for all of the contradictions and disagreements.
With that basic setup, Lansdale has crafted a continually rewarding series of adventures that’s found the men working together in any number of situations, almost all of which end up with a stack of bodies, a lot of blood, and a good amount of psychic scar tissue for a man who believes – or wants to believe – that he’s a pacifist. It’s pure neo-noir, in other words, but done with such a hilariously fantastic ear for dialogue and character that you spend as much time in each book laughing as you do cringing from the danger.
With all of that being said, it’s hard to know what to say about Vanilla Ride that doesn’t apply to most of the Hap and Leonard series. It once again finds the boys helping out a friend – in this case, a man whose daughter has taken up with a drug dealer and seems on her way to being a strung out addict who’s given up on life. But in the effort to set her free, Hap and Leonard end up angering some very dangerous people – the Dixie Mafia, in fact. Not only that, they get the attention of the local police, and FBI as well, and end up having to figure out how to get themselves out of a situation where everybody is coming after them for one reason or another.
As with most noir, half of the fun is watching the plotting unfold here, so I don’t want to get into much specific about how this all plays out; suffice to say, it’s satisfying, twisty, engaging, and constantly surprising, as Lansdale lets his story evolve and change in front of your eyes to something unexpected. That’s maybe most true in the climax, which goes in an entirely different direction than I ever guessed it would, and ends up being far more satisfying because of that, to say nothing of being far more morally complex, and getting into some deeper territory with the characters.
But the biggest thing I can say about Vanilla Ride is that it may well be the single funniest Hap and Leonard book I’ve read so far – and that’s high praise. You’d never argue that Vanilla Ride is a comedy, but Lansdale’s ear for Texas-fried banter and snappy comebacks has never been stronger, and his willingness to let conversations meander (especially between Hap and Leonard) pays off dividends left and right, as I found myself laughing out loud more times than I can count. (My favorite recurring joke may be the interesting way in which Leonard chooses to show his anger at his current boyfriend; suffice to say, it’s an impressive way to make a stand in an argument.) Make no mistake: Lansdale’s characters are profane, sarcastic, mean, and, oh, did I mention profane? But his dialogue here is wonderful, and gives the book more character than I can possibly express.
In short, Vanilla Ride may be my favorite Hap and Leonard book so far, and that’s a tough call to make; there’s not really a bad book in the series (even the first, which I’ve argued is the weakest, is still really solid; it just doesn’t measure up to what came later), but Vanilla Ride stands out with some of the greatest dialogue, a complicated climax whose messiness I admired, and some great plotting and character work that lets it stand out from the rest. But let’s be clear: it could just be that I love Hap and Leonard, and any chance to spend time with them is going to win me over. Whatever the case, I loved it; now I have to force myself not to jump into the next book just yet. (I space these out as treats to myself, if you’re wondering.)