The Piney Woods of East Texas have produced a lot of paper but relatively few books. In contrast, the region abounds in folktales and storytellers, a tradition gleefully mined by the genre writer Joe R. Lansdale, who has long made Nacogdoches his home. Tall tales haunt the edges of his stories, whether he’s working in the realm of horror, science fiction, or westerns. But his liveliest distillation of local folkways is found in the series of novels featuring the detectives Hap Collins and Leonard Pine.
East Texas, with its swampy bottomlands and dark, brooding forests, is a natural setting for a mystery series. Lansdale, though, wants to convey more than gothic atmosphere; he wants to establish a sense of place that’s almost anthropological in its scrupulousness. This is a region where, in his telling, people pour peanuts into their bottled sodas, fried squirrel appears on dinner plates, and, in some quarters, beehive hairdos have never gone out of style. Tied to the conservative ethos of the Old South and isolated by thick forest, East Texas has long lagged behind the times, for better and worse.
Hap, who narrates the novels, including the latest, Devil Red (Knopf, $24.95), grew up hearing his father’s stories about riding with Bonnie and Clyde, and he’s not above telling a few stories himself. He describes catfish that grow so big they’ll eat your children, an uncle who got lost in the Big Thicket and was lucky to escape with one eye intact, and an old iron bridge where, if the moon shines just right, you can see the ghost of a man who hanged himself.
In a culture where good storytellers are highly prized, conversation can be a competitive sport. Everyone in these books speaks in extravagant metaphors, brimming with profane wit. This is the swaggering dialect of the working class, and Hap is the local champion, the sort of man who’ll describe himself as feeling “about as useful here as a spare pecker on a dead hog.”
Even the plots of the Hap and Leonard books sound like half-forgotten folktales. Ever hear the story of the bank robber who stashed the loot in a boat that crashed as he was making his getaway, and no one ever found it, so the money is still sitting at the bottom of the river, waiting to be recovered? Welcome to the first novel in the series, Savage Season.
Lansdale is interested in more than local color, however. The Hap and Leonard books have established him as the unabashed conscience of East Texas, drawing our attention to environmental despoliation, religious intolerance, corrupt cops, and, above all else, racial prejudice. If Hap is Lansdale’s primary vehicle for communicating folklore, Leonard—a black, gay Vietnam veteran—gives us a firsthand view of the African American experience. When Hap and Leonard visit a white stronghold, a local man explains to them that black men have been nailed to trees and worked over with a blowtorch in these parts. “You don’t hear about all that goin’ on, but it does,” the man says. “Maybe not right here in town, but roundabouts. And maybe not recently, but recent enough, and it could get real recent anytime.”
As that quote suggests—note how even a creepy bigot has a way with the language—Lansdale may lampoon racists, but he doesn’t dismiss them outright. A couple of good ol’ boys heckling Leonard may appear to be a pair of typical rednecks, but if the circumstances warrant, they’ll join his side in a gang fight against whites. There are many shades of gray in Lansdale’s view of black and white.
Still, it’s surprising when, in Devil Red, a former member of the Aryan Nations explains to Leonard, “I ain’t into all that nigger hatin’ anymore.” This sentence is shocking not because of its use of the n-word but because the offending term doesn’t appear until page 142. In previous Hap and Leonard books, the characters seemed to be trying to set a world record for how often that word crossed their lips.
The global information age, apparently, has softened some of the Piney Woods’ rough edges since the series debuted. Twenty years ago, Leonard was never quite sure if he’d be allowed to eat at a local cafe or check into a small-town motel. But it’s one thing to keep a black man down if your actions are shielded by a Pine Curtain. It’s quite another to do so if you risk becoming an inadvertent YouTube star.
Still, if globalism has muted racism, its inherent placelessness is beginning to take its toll on Hap and Leonard. In Devil Red, our heroes are sent to rough up a couple of punks who robbed an old lady and broke her hand. In a bit of retaliatory justice, Leonard smashes the lead criminal’s hand with a baseball bat. The action is fairly routine until Leonard speaks a surprising line: “You bother me, or send someone to bother me, or my brother here, provided you even know who I am, who he is, and I’ll kill them.”
Back in the old days, it was inconceivable that someone wouldn’t know who Hap and Leonard were. The pairing of a straight white guy and a gay black guy was notable, to say the least. These days, though, East Texas has morphed into just another far-flung suburb of Houston. Devil Red, for instance, gets going with a typically offbeat Lansdale setup—a woman kills a frat boy and drinks his blood. But before too long Hap and Leonard find themselves very much out of their element: There’s a trip to a Houston skyscraper and a shoot-out—set in a Walmart parking lot—involving a mysterious black SUV. In the past, Hap and Leonard squared off face-to-face with the bad guys, be they midget pimps or murderous flag salesmen. But that SUV’s deeply tinted windows, which Hap can’t see into, represent something new (as does Walmart): the incursion of the larger, unknowable outside world and the retreat of the distinctive regionalism that has, for years, offered Hap and Leonard a sort of protection.
The loss of this intense localism has affected Lansdale’s writing too. While the action and the one-liners in Devil Red are as adept as any in the series, the book lacks the deep-fried flavor that characterized the earlier Hap and Leonard installments. The serial-killing, pedophiliac Baptist preacher in Mucho Mojo is a more colorful villain than the paragon of establishment capitalism Lansdale comes up with here.
Perhaps it’s a testament to his integrity that Lansdale refuses to trade in regional nostalgia past its expiration date. Local punks can batter an old lady, but they don’t hold the fate of entire communities in their hands. Increasingly, the destinies of East Texans, and the rest of us, are determined in remote skyscrapers. Given the many ways the business elite have abused ordinary Americans in recent years, the criminal in Devil Red may turn out to be Lansdale’s most convincing villain after all.
Textra credit: What else we’re reading this month
Trillin on Texas, Calvin Trillin (University of Texas Press & Company, $22). The beloved New Yorker writer eats smoked brisket and contemplates cowboy boots.
Llano Estacado: An Island in the Sky (Texas Tech University Press, $45). Photos of the Southern Plains, with essays by Barry Lopez, RIck Bass, Sandra Scofiled, and others.