November 17, 2011

Captains Outrageous ***

*** Captains Outrageous, Joe R Lansdale, 2001

Disclaimer: JLR is not for everyone

I have the Hap and Leonard series on the Elliptical and the Mary Russell series on the night stand, reading each in order. However, for H&L I skipped over the limited edition Veil's Visit because I typically resist paying $60 to $131 for a 164-page book. If anyone wants to send a copy to me, I'll take it.

Captains Outrageous has all the typical stuff you expect from a Hap and Leonard novel:

  • High action with lots of violence
  • Play-by-play choreography of fight scenes (which makes sense when you know that Lansdale is a two-time inductee into the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame)
  • Play-by-play choreography of sex scenes (no information in Lansdale's bio about being an inductee to the Sexual Arts Hall of Fame)
  • Dialog full of smart-aleck remarks, testosterone-laden blustering, and East Texas colloquialisms
  • Ruthless, deadly villains
  • Great similies (more on this later)

However, Captains Outrageous departs from the previous episodes in that it doesn't have a classic hero's journey structure. For those not steeped in writing craft issues, this means there is no clear objective set out in the beginning for the heroes to accomplish, and none of the other classic milestones in the plot. Consider the first five H&L novels:

  1. Savage Season: Find the treasure.
  2. Mucho Mojo: Solve the mystery of the body under the house.
  3. Two-Bear Mambo: Find out what happened to Florida.
  4. Bad Chili: Clear Leonard's name and find out what happened to Raul.
  5. Rumble Tumble: Rescue Brett's daughter from a brothel.

Then we get to Captains Outrageous, which has more of an episodic structure. There is no big goal, just a series of incidents in multiple locations that Hap and Leonard react to: save a girl from her attacker, take a vacation to Mexico on a crappy cruise line, get attacked by local thugs, help a local fisherman, escape from local mob violence, avenge a death. It changes as you go. The average non-writer reader might not notice this directly, but rather sense a lack of direction. There is a reason most novels and movies use some variation on the classic three act structure, even if readers don't know what it is.

Another detail I haven't mentioned before is that, with rare exceptions, every character in a H&L novel is a smart-ass. Hap, Leonard, their cop buddies, their cop enemies, the girl friends, the bad guys, the locals in whatever place they travel to, pretty much everybody. Any bit of dialog is essentially interchangeable and could be spoken by just about any character.

Despite all that, Captains Outrageous has lots of the stuff that brings me back. Here are a few examples:

  • p. 62: I read from a good Larry McMurtry book about the size of a cement block.
  • p. 63: The singers were so awful they hurt my feelings and their dancing was a bit more like contained stumbling to music.
  • p. 79. A very attractive, slightly heavy, thirtyish woman with shoulder-length hair dark as a miner's dream came onto the deck.
  • p. 106. He looked like something out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. He wore a white linen suit that looked as if he had slept in it. Scuffed black shoes run-down on the sides and a shirt that had been last washed during the Mexican Revolution, and then only because he had been caught out in the rain. He had salt-and-pepper hair and the front of it hung down on his forehead as if it were too ill to consider being combed.
  • p. 182. I felt like something made of Tinkertoys, but screwed down way too tight and somehow rotten at the center, fearing that if I turned just a little too far in one direction the whole of me might come undone.
  • p. 194. I gathered up my courage. It was like trying to gather up ten pounds of yard and poke it in a two pound basket.
  • p. 253. We flew closer to the city. A haze of pollution thick enough to wear overalls hung over everything. Mixed with the sunlight the air achieved the color of a dried wound. Buildings jumped at us and the streets below were as confused as a ball of twine.

I'm not too enamoured with Hap and Leonard to be oblivious to the flaws, but the pleasure of reading well-crafted sentences trumps the flaws, for now. I have one more H&L book on my shelf, Vanilla Ride. We'll see how it turns out.

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