Mid nineties - Interview in London
Joe R. Lansdale might just be the hippest writer in America right now. He's got five books currently under development in Hollywood and his series of East Texas thrillers - featuring the odd couple of Hap Collins (straight, white) and Leonard Pine (gay, black) - look set to break him through to the commercial big time. He's certainly got the best titles of any writer going: last year's book was called Mucho Mojo and his latest offering rejoices in the handle The Two-Bear Mambo.
The Two-Bear Mambo is a terrific slice of purest American noir which starts when Leonard (the gay black one) needs to get out of town, having set fire to his local crack house for the third time. The local chief of police suggests that, seeing as Leonard is such a do-gooder, maybe he and his friend Hap would like to mosey over to nearby Grovetown and investigate the whereabouts of a black lawyer named Florida Grange, who has gone missing. Only trouble is Grovetown is a place where the Klan still rides and the rest-rooms still have 'No Coloreds' signs in plain view. The Two-Bear Mambo is a dark, funny, four-fisted expedition into the heart of redneck racism, and, with the film rights bought by David Lynch's Propaganda Films, it's the book that looks set to catapult Lansdale into the big time.
Like most overnight successes, though, Joe Lansdale's turns out to have been a long time coming. Over in London for a promotional visit, Lansdale - a stocky, easygoing yet watchful man in his mid forties - fills me in on his background: "I grew up in the country just outside a place called Gladewater, East Texas. It's an old oil boom town that's gone to seed, and when I was growing up it was a very tough place to live."
Lansdale graduated from high school there and then spent a year in college at East Texas University, in Nacogdoches, where he still lives. He quickly got married, divorced, and remarried. Then began his struggle , first to write and then to make a living from writing, finally going full time in 1981. In the early days he used to write short stories at the rate of one every three days, and earned just enough to pay the rent. At first he made more of a mark in the horror field than in crimewriting : "When I was growing up," he recalls, "I wanted to write science fiction. Only problem was I wasn't very good at it. Then in my late teens I discovered the hardboiled genre, all those old Gold Medal Novels. " (Gold Medal were the great pulp publishers of the fifties and sixties who put out books by the likes of Jim Thompson, David Goodis and John D. Macdonald.) " I thought , 'I can relate to this. These guys are like my dad, the people I grew up with. I know this world.'"
Joe Lansdale is above all a country novelist, a writer whose work is rooted in the land they call the Big Thicket country of East Texas, a swampy, piney corner of America that time has mostly forgotten. You can tell his background by looking at his immense forearms , which bear witness to a life of manual labour : "Before I started writing full time," he recalls, "I dug ditches, worked in factories. I was a bouncer and a bodyguard. After that I worked in the rose fields for, oh, too long."
Savage Season, the first of the Hap and Leonard novels (not published here till later this year), saw Lansdale drawing explicitly from his own experiences: "There's a lot about Hap Collins that's me," he explains. "I come from the same era. I was a Vietnam war resister. So I used that as a background for a simple tale I wanted to tell in the tradition of those Gold Medal novels I read as a kid." By contrast, his black character, Leonard, seems to have come out of nowhere. "Leonard just appeared and started talking to Hap and ... that's the best I know how to tell you. I'm not a real conscious writer."
Savage Season sees a ghost from Hap's radical hippie past come back to haunt him. She's called Trudy and she's a sixties chick who never let go of that time. Hap's a hardbitten case these days, no longer the redneck radical who went to prison sooner than be drafted, and he's got no time for the Trudys of the world now. But he's got a lot of time for her long, blonde body. That and the fact that Hap's not just a rose field picker, but an unemployed rose field picker, makes it pretty easy for Trudy to lure Hap into a buried treasure scam. Leonard knows it's all going to end in tears but he doesn't want to see his good buddy Hap walk into this set-up without some back-up, so he comes in too.
What follows is both a fine switch-backing thriller and a sharp meditiation on the slow death of sixties idealism. And in Hap and Leonard - a disillusioned ex-pacifist country boy and a cynical Vietnam vet country'n-western fan - Lansdale had created a memorable double act.
And yet Savage Season was very nearly the beginning and the end of the series: 'I never originally intended to write another book about Hap and Leonard," remembers Lansdale. "But then I started writing another book and it wasn't working, and I found myself writing about Hap and, before I knew it, I had sixty or seventy pages of what was to become Mucho Mojo. I told my agent and she said, 'I just don't think you ought to do any more books about these characters, this kind of book will never do you any good!' So I put it away and spent ten months writing a piece of shit, and finally I said 'This isn't right, I'm gonna go back and do what I want to do.' So I fired that agent and went back to Mucho Mojo."
Mucho Mojo saw Lansdale streching out. While Savage Season was essentially a plot-driven work that happened to have some unusually well-developed characters, this time Lansdale relaxed and gave the book up to Hap and Leonard. The result is a novel that fellow crime writer James Crumley described as 'Not just a fine mystery full of unexpected moves, but a better novel about black-white friendship and rural life than anything I've ever read.'
Mucho Mojo starts when Leonard inherits his uncle's house. Which is good news except for a couple of minor points: there's a crack house over the road and a mummified body in the cellar, next to a cache of child pornography. The first problem is easily solved: Leonard just burns the crackhouse down. However, the second matter involves the dynamic duo in a twisting mystery that rips the mask of piety from small-town Baptist life and, along the way, allows Hap to get lucky with a beautiful black lawyer named Florida Grange.
And it's this same Florida Grange who's responsible for kicking off the action in The Two-Bear Mambo. She's already split up with Hap, she being an ambitious young woman and he being a fortysomethig slacker, but when she goes missing Hap feels honour bound to investigate. Especially since the place she's gone missing in is Grovetown, Texas, the most racist town in the USA. I asked Lansdale if places like Grovetown really still existed:
"There's a place called Vidor, Texas," he replies, "that's noted for that sort of thing. It even used to have a Klan bookstore. It's not typical of Texas. I think people have the illusion that Texas is full of people riding around in pick-up trucks with rifles and sheets on, but in general it's just the opposite. These days, the Klan are just a small group and even people who are somewhat racist themselves despise them as cowards. But this place Vidor is the exception. It amazed me. There are virtually no blacks there; I couldn't believe such a place still exists.
The duo's investigation turns out to be a Deliverance-like jouney into the heart of whiteness. And to say much more would be to give too much away. Lansdale's now hard at work on a new book: "Soon as I had written the second book, Mucho Mojo, I realised this was going to be a series. I'd really got to like the characters so The Two-Bear Mambo just jumped right out and I'm working on a fourth now. Will I continue? I may but I've never liked the idea of tying myself down. "
Let's hope the time when Lansdale starts to feel tied down doesn't come too soon, for the Hap and Leonard books are sharp and funny and violent chronicles of an America that's vanishing before our eyes.