The Two-Bear Mambo by Joe R. Lansdale
Hap and Leonard are back in this raucous ride through the back roads of East Texas. This time the two anti-heroes are asked to investigate the disappearance of Florida Grange, an ex of Hap’s who visited the notoriously racist area of Grovetown. The beautiful Florida is black, and Grovetown is a centre for those imbeciles who lament the end of slavery. As Hap is also a tough, gay black man, it all makes for an interesting foray into the world of white supremacism. The following review does contain some spoilers.
When Florida Grange went to Grovetown, it was for the purpose of looking into the suspected murder of a black man in the town jail. When Hap and Leonard get there, they encounter the white sheriff, a man with little sentimentality for civil rights activists. But as our heroes discover, sometimes a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover. As bad as he might be, Sheriff Cantuck may be the best friend that Hap and Leonard have in town.
As with many such stories, and perhaps this is applicable to small town USA, there always seems to be one person who is in control of the place. The Big Man in this instance is Jackson Truman Brown, ‘Lord of Grovetown’, and he hates ‘niggers’ and gay people and just about anyone else who isn’t white, pseudo-Christian, straight and in his pocket. When Hap and Leonard try to get some food to eat in the local diner, owned by a tough but fair local woman, they bite off more than they can chew. They are subsequently lucky to escape with their lives after a savage beating and it affects them psychologically. Neither of the two hard-cases has ever suffered through a hammering like it and as a result their confidence in themselves and perhaps each other is badly dented.
Jackson Brown’s son, Tim, has somehow befriended both men. He does not get along with his brutal father but doesn’t want to get on his bad side either. When Hap and Leonard are taken to the home of a black cook after their beating, Tim and the Sheriff are there to help them get back to their own part of Texas. As it happens, Tim is also one of the last people to have seen Florida alive, as she was staying in a trailer that belonged to his mother, both of whom are beset with financial worries.
It’s during the journey home, as the two desperately injured men are driving down a deserted back road (Leonard took the brunt of the beating), that Hap and Leonard realise that Grovetown is not going to let them go so easily. They are ambushed by white supremacists and a gun battle ensues. It ends when Sheriff Cantuck arrives and shoots one of the assailants, getting shot in the process. Hap and Leonard make a friend for life when they rush the lawman to hospital and save his life.
But our lead protagonists are not the sort to give up on a case. Nor are they going to allow themselves to live in fear after their terrible beating. They resolve to set out again for Grovetown to find Florida as well as lay to rest the ghosts of the attack that shook them so badly. And that is one of the most beautiful things about the Hap and Leonard series, it’s about two men are who fairly normal. They joke as normal men do. They fight and argue as normal men do, and they get afraid as normal men do. Hap and Leonard run the normal gamut of emotions that we males are all afflicted with. It’s refreshing to meet fictional characters who are approachable and true to life, if a bit prone to trouble. In comparing them to Jack Reacher, for example, we can see the vast difference in how Hap and Leonard live real lives with money problems and crap houses and broken cars and need. Yet they still maintain a sense of dignity common to working class people who find themselves tossed into, or born into, tough circumstances.
The reader is left feeling the psychological pain of the pair as they decide to return to face their demons. They fell off the horse and they sought to get right back on before it was too late. There’s something incredibly human about this and it’s great to see it in modern fiction of this calibre. Of course, both Hap and Leonard are formidable in their own right, but together they are virtually unstoppable (note virtually) – when fully prepared.
The dialogue in the Hap and Leonard series is out on its own. Joe R. Lansdale could be a writer for a stand-up comedian or perhaps a sitcom, such is the sharpness and laugh-out-loud nature of his prose. The insults fly non-stop between both Hap and Leonard and just about anyone they meet. Upon first encountering Sheriff Cantuck, Hap automatically treats him as both a hostile and bumbling hill billy. The Sheriff is not as slow-witted as Hap thinks though, a fact that he learns quickly. In describing himself to Hap, using a healthy dose of sarcasm, the Sheriff had this to say,
‘My Daddy used to tell me that a nigger gal wasn’t good for but one thing, and they were damn good at that. He was Chief here way back, and he dealt with a lot of niggers. Nigger gals paid him a lot of fines in a special manner. If you know what I mean. I take after my old man in that department. I’ll fuck anything that ain’t nailed down and has a hole. In fact, when I was a boy, I tore the ass out of a few chickens putting the dick to ‘em. Got so every time my mama found a dead chicken she’d take the belt to me, whether I did it or not. Pigs squealed at night, Mom came in my room and beat me.’
As you might have noticed, the language in the Hap and Leonard series is not for the faint-hearted. There are constant racist references bandied about. The author doesn’t pull his punches. But neither is it gratuitous. The above quote is a Sheriff playing the stereotypical role expected of him by Hap. The humour is deep and far-reaching even when coarse. No one could accuse Joe R. Lansdale of being racist any more than they could accuse him of being homophobic. Leonard is a major hero in these books and, as was stated earlier, he’s black and gay. The stories, especially this one, don’t shy away from engaging with Leonard’s sexual orientation and lifestyle. Similarly, they will not avoid the topic of overt and covert racism. In that, Hap and Leonard are in the vanguard of progressive literature.
Rebel Voice is a massive fan of this series. It might be one of the best there is. It’s up there with Sandford’s Virgil Flowers and Lucas Davenport, Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, and C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett. The United States really does have most of the best authors on the series circuit today with only John Connolly matching them with his Charlie Parker saga.
The Two-Bear Mambo – title taken from a nature program that the men see where two bears have sex (do bears have sex or is that term slightly weird when used for animals?) – is yet another great addition to the ongoing adventures of two of the most interesting and engaging characters to be found in fiction. Rebel Voice has no idea why these books are not more popular everywhere. Joe R. Lansdale is almost unheard of in The Celtic Isles. The story concludes with a cataclysmic finish that neatly ties up most of the loose ends. There’s no point in telling you everything. Instead, get the book and see for yourselves why Joe R. Lansdale is one of the best there is.
Sult scale rating : 8 out of 10. For all fans of tough-talking, hard-hitting modern literature, this book is a must-read. Joe R. Lansdale consistently provides top-notch stories with a heart, even though the language is often enough to make a sailor weep. The Two-Bear Mambo (first published 1995, but re-released 2016) tackles racism in small-town USA. It’s timely that it is once again on the shelves during a period in US history when MAGA hats can be seen upon the Cro-Magnon heads of white supremacists at Trump rallies. It does appear as if the more progressive authors in the United States today are taking a stand and making their own comment upon developments in their great nation. Joe R. Lansdale was way ahead of the pack by some decades. We, the people, get to enjoy wonderfully progressive stories regardless.
Here’s another cracking story about Hap and Leonard: