Hyenas by Joe R Lansdale
Hyenas by Joe R Lansdale is another of these novellas published by Subterranean Press (2011). It’s an elegant design with some nifty jacket art by Glen Orbik so, in theory, we’re on to another winner. After all, under normal circumstances, you can’t go wrong with a Hap & Leonard story, now can you? Well, here’s the rub. This is the tenth outing for the dynamic duo, so those of us who have read them all can begin to see patterns. We know you have the set-up when our defenders of the innocent will acquire a “job” of some kind. This will usually involve the use of moderate violence. Whichever one is doling out the beating or “punishment” will usually only want to make an appeal to reason. After all, they know from experience most bears always back away when struck a few time with a baseball bat. Except, of course, those pesky bears can lurk in the woods for an hour or so, and come on their own little home visit to ask for revenge. The rest of the story is usually an extended discussion on the merits of a hat as a form of disguise or whether success in fighting is down to physical size or skill. Because our two heroes are expected to return for another adventure, they have to emerge the winners in this pissing competition or it’s declared an honourable draw with both sides walking away to lick their wounds and screw their partners until blissful sleep overtakes them.
As a formula, there’s not a great deal of room for manoeuvre, but we Lansdale fans forgive structural limitations because we find the author amusing. Yes, there will be bones broken and bullets flying, but it’s all done in the best possible taste, mojo style. In other words, Lansdale makes even the grimmest of stories fun by the banter and repartee between the odd couple, their loved ones and those with whom they contend.
Except Hyenas is a little thin. That’s not thinness in terms of length, you understand. We know from the size of the book this is not one of the longest stories ever written. But the fabric of the narrative is somewhat perfunctory. We have one of the standard plots, but the Lansdale touch seems less evident this time round. There are one or two good lines which provoked a smile but, frankly, not enough of them to sustain this “thin” story. Normally, Lansdale distracts the reader with a mass of irrelevant detail. This is a little bald, even without the hat joke.
I suspect the good folk at Subterranean Press had their doubts because the slim volume is padded out with a short story. “The Boy Who Became Invisible” is a Hap solo — in the old pun sense of him being so lowdown, he’s like a snake. I won’t spoil this short short story by talking about the plot but, like all casual cruelty between peers, it doesn’t show anyone in a good light. I suppose it does shed a sliver of light on how Hap came to be the adult he is, but I’m not convinced. Worse, I’m not convinced the inclusion of this story adds real value to the book. So, I’m in the slightly unusual position of advising people to wait for a novella to be republished in a collection where it will hopefully be a better value purchase. Of course all true Lansdale fans will buy the first edition anyway, but the rest of you might pause before buying. The early Hap & Leonard novels are wonderful. If you haven’t already read them, start with Mucho Mojo.
For those of you who don’t immediately go on to read the comments to these reviews, I have imported the following from the Master himself,
“Just for the record, I insisted the story be included so no one would mistake this for a novel, or hoped they wouldn’t. As to the quality, that is of course the reader’s judgement, but I didn’t want that put on Subterranean Press. That was my idea, and not for the reason you give.”
So now we know. Thanks for that clarification and apologies for any confusion to the folk at Subterranean Press.