It’s that time again: when I take a few minutes to stop trying to convince all of you to go and read whichever cool SF&F book is on my desk at the moment, and instead try and convince all of you to read the next Hap & Leonard book. Joe R. Lansdale has been writing these books for quite some time now - I think there’s now something in the area of twenty books, and three seasons of a TV show. The series, centred around the titular old-poor Texan Hap, and his “brother” Leonard, Vietnam veteran, black cowboy extraordinaire, and lover of vanilla cookies, has quite a pedigree. What it also has is a sense of adventure, an ability to show the reader a good time without compromising on the narrative values which it wants to put across, and some concisely but precisely crafted characters who you might not want to meet in a dark alley, but are startlingly human with it.
This collection of short stories, Of Mice and Minestrone, digs into the backstory of the dynamic duo. Leonard, fresh from the army, and Hap, fresh from prison as a conscientious objector, are trying to live their lives - peacefully, quietly, they’ll enjoy it. As usual, though, life has other plans.
One of the things that makes this collection work is the sense of place. The dark, star-filled humidity of east Texas is vividly present in the mind’s eye. Small towns where everyone knows each other, for good or ill, are as much characters as the people who live within them. Those people are wonderful, too - not in themselves, because some of them are properly terrible, but in their humanity. Quiet, backwoods mafia bagmen stand cheek-by-jowl with down on their luck boxers, sullen bartenders and abusive husbands whose every-day evil is grimly palpable. It’s not all bad news, of course. In bars at the back of beyond, or in the quietly domestic family scenes of cooking and connection, there is room to show off the best of humanity. The world is familiar, populated with real people, but has a strangeness to it, delving into a Texas that feels as far in mindset, in time, as it is in geography from now. This is a place showcasing the best and worst of humanity, and we’re embedded in it, appalled by the latter, luxuriating in the former.
Hap and Leonard are the stars, of course, and you can’t fault them for it. The chemistry between the two leads is intense enough to crackle in moments of stress, but comfortable enough that even in this early stage of their lives, they clearly know each other as well as best friends can. They’re just fun, are Hap and Leonard - starting bar fights, taking no crap from small town racists, sitting around having a big bowl of chili. They’re a comfort to all of us, a certainty in uncertain times, that good, or at least goo-ish, can triumph, and that one small corner of the world is the better off for having them in it. These are stories for people who’ve already absorbed the small-town charm of the series, already know that blend of comfortable friendship, refusal to back down to bullies, and the occasional kinetic arse-kicking. But you could dip in as a new reader too, and find them just as entertaining, these tales. Give them a whirl - they’ll make you smile, and take you to a different place, a different time, and show you some of what was terrible and beautiful about it.
(Also, there’s recipes for so much Texan home cooking on here, and it all, yes all, tastes delicious; a great resource on lockdown).