By Joe R. Lansdale
A few weeks ago, everyone on my twitter feed was mocking Jonathan Franzen for saying he wouldn’t dare write a book about race because he doesn’t have very many black friends. Now, I find Franzen as annoying as the next woman, but I figure, thank God for small favors, because I would bet good money that his thoughts on race would be almost unbearably outdated and condescending.
It is possible that author Joe R. Lansdale should have also put some additional thought into his cross-cultural relationships as well. I had high hopes for the crime-committing and –solving pair of friends, Hap, a white ex-hippy, and Leonard, a gay, black Vietnam veteran.
Unfortunately, it only takes the first novel, Savage Season, nine pages before the white guy, Hap, ‘teasingly’ calls his black friend, Leonard, the n-word, and it is just so awkward. It almost felt like the author had written an entire novel just to somehow get himself an “n-word pass” as a white person.
Racism aside, there’s plenty of sexism, too. Hap has an ex-wife who keeps coming into his life making trouble, and he is just helpless against her wiles! She is, of course, the one who starts the trouble in this novel, too. She is so weirdly portrayed that she come across as psychotic sometimes, though Hap and Leonard are unusually forgiving toward her.
Of course, with all my bitching, I read the book in two days straight – Lansdale keeps the plot hopping, and I started the sequel almost immediately, figuring that debut novels are often kind of shaky while the author is still finding his stride.
Unfortunately the sequel takes all the things I didn’t like so much in the first novel and hits them even harder. Lansdale takes some astoundingly racist rhetoric, about systematically oppressed people just victimize themselves with their own defeatism, and puts it in the mouth of Leonard while Hap just sort of goes, “well, I don’t know about all that…”
Rebecca was giving me crap for quitting the second book a third of the way through, so I read her passages from it, until she agreed it was the right decision:
Black children with blacker eyes wearing dirty clothes sat in yards of sun-bleached sand and struggling grass burrs and looked at us without enthusiasm as we drove past.
It was near midday and grown men of working ages went wandering the streets like dogs looking for bones, and some congregated at storefronts and looked lonesome and hopeless and watched with the same lack of enthusiasm as children as we drove past. [Comment: gritty noir always likes everyone and everything to be miserable, but this sounds a bit too close to poverty porn, which is also just a super gross phrase.)
“Man, I hate seeing that,” Leonard said. “You’d think some of these sonofabitches would want to work.”
“You got to have jobs to work,” I said.
“You got to want jobs, too,” Leonard said.
“You saying they don’t?”
“I’m saying too many of them don’t. Whitey still has them on his farm, only they ain’t doing nothing there and they’re getting tidbits tossed to them like dogs, and they take it and keep on keeping on and wanting Whitey to do more.”
As Rebecca pointed out, when a white author puts this kind of rhetoric in the mouth of a fictional black character, it is basically literary blackface, and it is gross. On a more positive note, I read a really thoughtful article online titled “There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You,” which discusses how important diverse representation is in literature, and how anyone, no matter their background, can help contribute to that representation. So I encourage everyone, writer or not, to read that article, and to skip Lansdale’s series.