Vanilla Ride by Joe R. Lansdale
Humour is one of the more difficult-to-define human reactions. What we may find amusing is influenced by the prevailing culture, the extent to which the situations depicted match our own experiences, and so on. What I can say is that television writers’ attempts to produce common denominator humour for the mass market have largely left me cold. None of the series explicitly billed as “funny” have raised even the faintest of smiles from me. I long ago gave up watching them. This, of course, raises the question of whether any television makes me laugh out loud. The answer is somewhat strange. This week, I have been vastly amused by episodes of “CSI” and “Burn Notice”, both of which in slightly different ways, deal with violence and death. Yet they and other dramatic shows use humour in the traditional way. For example, in the Scottish play (sparing those of you who think it bad luck to speak, write or read the Mac word), we have the scene with the Porter which, by breaking the mood, raises the tempo of tragedy when the murder is discovered. So I find situations or the comments they inspire amusing when they take an unexpected turn. Irony and the absurd make me laugh.
My reading of Lansdale has been on and off over the last thirty years or so. When I first found him back in the early 1980s, I was bowled over. He had a voice I could read for hours. With the 1990s came the Hap and Leonard novels and my joy was complete. But a combination of factors slowly turned me off. He became the primary author for Subterranean Press and, for their mutual profit, the majority of books emerged as more expensive limited editions. This works for a while so long as the quality of the fiction remains high. But with the launch of The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent we began to plumb the underbelly of Lansdale’s published works. No matter how good The Bottoms or A Fine Dark Line, I lost interest. Captains Outrageous had seemed a poor outing for Hap and Leonard. Zeppelins West was, not to put too fine a point on it, just plain silly. I stopped buying.
Yet, it was fond memories of the early Hap and Leonards that tempted me back and, fortunately, Vanilla Ride has proved one of the more amusing books of the last year or so. This is Hap and Leonard meet Sergio Leone in a Spaghetti Western shootout. As with many books of this type, it’s the journey itself that matters rather than the scenery that flashes by on the way. Our two heroes must start at the beginning and arrive at the end relatively unscathed so they can re-emerge in another book. While this removes some level of tension from the central narrative, the monotony of their victories is leavened by the number of bodies left behind. As in Schwarzenegger films like Commando, the invincibility of the heroes is so absurd, it becomes amusing in its own right. We merely wait to see how the author will rescue the deus from the machina. Wrap in the banter between the characters and you have a genuinely entertaining read. It’s not going to impress you as great literature but, having no pretensions to being anything other than the latest Hap and Leonard outing, it’s one of the best of its type and well worth the price of admission.