Because it’s Joe Fucking Lansdale.
That really should be the end of this article. If you don’t know the work of Joe R. Lansdale, Hap & Leonard is a wonderful introduction to his most popular books. If you already enjoy his work, watching the series on Sundance is like reading the books for the first time again. They capture the tone and spirit perfectly and bring the characters to life, right down to Hap’s hippie soul and Leonard’s irascible, rugged individualism (and Nilla wafers). Which is quite a feat because, while Joe is a champion storyteller, his voice is a large part of what makes his work so enjoyable. Like Robert Parker, Walter Mosley, and Laura Lippman, he can write about something mundane and make it as gripping as a thriller because he writes with a voice that we follow like the little bouncing red ball over song lyrics, if you’re old enough to remember those.
And somehow, director Jim Mickle and Lansdale himself have translated that to the small screen. They’ve taken the first three books—Savage Season, Mucho Mojo and The Two-Bear Mambo—and made each one a short (savage) season, which has worked wonderfully so far. And if you are behind, you can catch up quickly by watching them on the Sundance TV website or on demand from your cable provider. The current season has them poking their noses into a quaint-looking Texas town that is run by the Klan, after a young black woman journalist disappears. She just happens to be Hap’s ex-girlfriend, and she was on the trail of a supposedly cursed bluesman’s lost tapes.
Mickle did a great job adapting Lansdale’s thriller Cold in July to the big screen, and he brings the same ability here. Lansdale writes hardboiled but infuses his stories with both humanity and a sense of humor that gives them mass appeal. The opposites-attract buddy comedy aspect of a white, romantic conscientious objector (Hap) and a cynical, black, gay Vietnam veteran gives the stories instant rapport. There will always be conflict, whether it is Hap and Leonard arguing about how best to deal with the crack dealers next door or when their do-gooding gets them in the sights of a psychopathic pair of bank robbers, as in Savage Season.
Even evil is human in a Lansdale story, but his empathy doesn’t stop it from getting justice at the hands (and feet) of the Honky Tonk Samurai. That’s the title of one of his latest Hap & Leonard novels, and it encapsulates the characters so perfectly that I had to use it here, even if it will be Season 9 before they get to that book. They have the ragged sense of honor of ronin in a Kurosawa film. Filling their bellies comes first, but they won’t walk past evil and let it be.
One of my favorite parts of the novels and the series is that both Hap and Leonard need to work. Lansdale himself is no stranger to hard work, and his essays will tell you of the jobs he performed before he could write full time. The Captains Outrageous aren’t choosy about the labor they perform either. They do what’s available. In one season, they are picking roses—the cheap ones that you get sold on a street corner, not thinking about who had to pick thorny flowers all day so you could get a bouquet for 10 bucks. They drive beat-up trucks and cars and their houses are modest—they aren’t living the little boy’s fantasy of driving a ‘70s muscle car and living in a rent-controlled loft or a million-dollar home in the Hollywood Hills. They are busting their butts to keep the gas bill paid and the tank full.
And by giving us two friends who are political opposites, who argue about the details but agree on the basics of right and wrong, Lansdale saw long ago the rift in American society and how to mend it. Work together, live near one another, share some Nilla wafers, and spar a little in the garage. It’s a series that is both cynical in its view of human frailty and hopeful that for every dingleberry who lives to make life miserable, there will be two unlikely heroes who will put their boots to his ass.
And that’s why you should be watching Hap & Leonard.
Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which BookPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.”
Joyce Carol Oates calls him “a lovely kitty man.”