The Hap & Leonard series is one of Joe R. Lansdale’s most engaging works, a series of strange and fragmented crime stories which showcase two men who care for one another like brothers and find themselves frequently in complicated situations of one sort or another. The latest collection of these stories is Of Mice and Minestrone and follows Hap and, to a slightly lesser extent, Leonard through some of their childhood formative years up to the time the two reunite after a Vietnam-war related separation.
The title story is largely about a conflict that Hap encounters during a time he is doing janitorial duty at a police station. He also encounters a disturbing example of spousal abuse, and the combination serves to show the young man a degree of conduct between small town southern police and actual crime which is corrupt on a very specific level, and shake his understanding of a society he already knew to be quite unjust.
The title of the story comes from a certain dish served at a pivotal point, and how it plays out is horrifying, and Hap’s reaction to it represents the dawning reality the young man has, both of his personal sense of justice and the disturbing ways in which even that could lead one astray.
“Sparring Partner” has the illustrious duo working together, and trying to make some quick cash. They do enough of a job of this initially, and the reader starts to get a real feeling for the personalities of the pair both as a duo and as individuals. The placement of this story further reminds the reader of the difference from the situations where Hap is alone. The two quickly find that the man they are sparring against is not a very big threat, and are not capable enough to truly be a contender in the ring. In the case of the second Hap & Leonard actively feel sorry for the fellow, and attempt an obvious yet plausible scheme to help him out.
Themes of family, of duty and of race play key roles in this volume, although not always in the expected way. The question of conscience plays a large role as well, and the ways that it can so often only lead to more complicated situations. The strange ways the world reacts to an outsider, as Leonard is, plays a large role. As a result of this, the focus seems to move to Leonard even as Hap is our narrator. The result makes the reader empathize further through a friend’s fear for his buddy, and in the process pushes Leonard more to the mind than Hap in any stories where they remain together.
After the short stories comes the section “Good Eats” which while staying in character gives a fair number of varied and, in many cases, tasty sounding recipes. These include such simple recipes as tea, but also some fairly complex ones such as pies and chili made more or less from scratch. Each is constructed in a way that feels conversational, and is perhaps not best suited to actually explaining the recipes. Somehow, it works, and the reader finds themselves earmarking one or two to try at some future date.
Overall this collection was an excellent piece of regional fiction, focusing on character while reflecting the times and difficulties very well. Like any collection of short stories there are stronger and weaker pieces. However, even the weakest in this collection is worth reading. While the initial stories only feature one of the leads, all help to paint a clear picture of the pair as human beings. These stories evoke the likes of Elmore Leonard, and manage to feel so reflective that one can almost taste the food. Easy to recommend to a newcomer or a fan of Hap and Leonard as a whole.