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East Texas Mojo

Writer Joe R. Lansdale’s gritty Pineywoods fiction captivates Hollywood and international fans

Florence, Italy, is possibly the last place you’d expect to find a bookshop named after a novel by a small-town Texas author. Florence is known for Basilica di Santa Croce, the resting place of Galileo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli, and home of a statue and funerary monument to Dante. The city’s Accademia Gallery is home to Michelangelo’s David, and its Uffizi Gallery houses Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

But not far from the heart of Florence, across the Arno River at Ponte San Nicolò and a few blocks east on Via Giampaolo Orsini, sits a slice of Lone Star literary culture known as Libreria Mucho Mojo, a bookstore dedicated to the work of East Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale.

Mucho Mojo is the second book in Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series of crime novels. It’s also the title of the second season of Hap and Leonard, a series on SundanceTV. Lansdale’s writing has become significant in Italy perhaps because he garners Italian fascination with jolting horror and bare-knuckled crime fiction conveyed in a down-home East Texas drawl.

Lansdale’s characters ply the muddy waters of the Sabine River and the backcountry roads that crisscross the Pineywoods. They talk like Texans and navigate the world like Texans. If they haven’t been in a tornado, they’ve seen one, and they’re as comfortable in the 107-degree summer heat as they are facing a norther bearing down after it crosses the Red River. They don’t all wear 10-gallon hats or swill Lone Star beer, but, at one point or another, every one of them has stepped over William Barrett Travis’ line in the sand and is willing to fight for what they think is right, regardless of the odds.

So it’s no wonder Hollywood came calling.

Lansdale’s Cold in July, the story of an unassuming Texas everyman turned accidental hero, received film treatment in 2014, and Sundance recently aired a third season of Hap and Leonard. Meanwhile, several of Lansdale’s other works, including The Bottoms, A Fine Dark Line, The Thicket and Freezer Burn have been optioned for the big screen. In an upcoming independent film project, The Projectionist, Lansdale will assume the director’s chair and try his hand at translating his writing to film. And all this comes after the 2002 cult classic B-movie, Bubba Ho-Tep. Based on Lansdale’s book of the same name, it features an elderly, spotlight-dodging Elvis and an African-American JFK (played by Ossie Davis) battling a misplaced ancient Egyptian mummy in an East Texas nursing home.

“He’s so incredibly prolific,” says Steven L. Davis, curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University in San Marcos. “It’s like you’re in this river that’s at flood stage and all these logs are floating by and each one is a Lansdale book. And you grab one and it’s the ride of your life and your favorite for a while—but then there’s another and another. He’s a wholly original literary voice that’s created masterpieces that really explore and play with what it means to be Texan.”

Even though Lansdale can boast more than 44 books, 400 short stories, and numerous articles and essays, most of his neighbors in the Lone Star State might not be familiar with his writing. He enjoys the respect of noted authors such as Stephen King and James Patterson, and counts Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin a close friend, and yet he can remain unnoticed on many main streets in Texas.

Lansdale, 66, grew up in a family of modest means in Gladewater. “I’ve plowed with mules, raised my own food and worked as a truck cropper,” says Lansdale, currently a resident of the Nacogdoches area and a member of Deep East Texas Electric Cooperative. “I was born rural and still live rural.”

Lansdale’s father was hardworking but illiterate; his mother had creative leanings and encouraged him to read. At a very early age, he knew he wanted to write. “I got interested in writing through comic books first,” Lansdale says. “I enjoyed the stories. As I got older, I became more interested in characters and began to read more widely. I realized that a writer could create his or her own mythology. That excited me when I was young and it still excites me today. I still like telling stories and exploring new ideas.”

Lansdale dabbled at college in Tyler, Austin and Nacogdoches and worked several blue-collar jobs. He never stayed away from East Texas very long. His first novel, Act of Love, went to press in 1981. In The Bottoms, which came out in 2000, Lansdale chronicles a series of murders in Jim Crow Texas as seen through the eyes of a constable’s children. In A Fine Dark Line (2002), Lansdale examines life in a small Texas town from the perspective of a teenager who discovers a box of forgotten love letters. And the narrative of Lost Echoes (2006) details the experiences of a grimly gifted young Texan bent on getting his life back on track. The list of Lansdale’s offerings goes on and on, and it’s distinguished by originality, suspense and a keen eye for the darkly humorous.

Lansdale is not the first East Texas writer to attract attention at the national or international level. Trinity native William Goyen (1915–1983) published several critically acclaimed novels—the most successful of which was The House of Breath—and short story collections in the 1950s and, like Lansdale, was highly regarded in Europe. Dubbed “The Voice of the Pines” by Texas Monthly in 2015, Goyen garnered the MacMurray Award for the best first novel by a Texan for The House of Breath and received Guggenheim Fellowships in 1951 and 1952.

Clarksville native William Humphreys’ (1924–1997) first book, Home From the Hill, was well-received by critics in 1958 and made into a film starring Robert Mitchum and Eleanor Parker in 1960. His second novel, The Ordways, also enjoyed critical success and inspired comparisons to William Faulkner.

Goyen and Humphreys left East Texas to pursue their writing careers. Lansdale stayed put, and the region informs every page of his work. “I instantly recognize the characters,” says Dale Lafleur, whose Port Neches bookshop, Fleur Fine Books, houses the largest collection of Lansdale titles for sale in the state. “I grew up with those guys and have been around them all my life. They remind me of family members, neighbors and friends.”

And Lafleur can attest to the popularity of Lansdale’s Pineywoods noir. “Joe’s stuff is always in demand,” Lafleur says. “He has a huge, loyal following, and the Hap and Leonard series has really boosted his visibility.”

“The hardest thing for a writer to do is translate the feel of a good story onto the page,” Davis says. “And then it’s a matter of keeping the audience on the edge of its seat. Lansdale does both. He’s earthy and eloquent at the same time. He’s written some of the most important fiction ever to come out of the state, stuff that puts him in the top rank of Texas writers.”

Mark Sanders, chairman of the English department at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, where Lansdale is a writer-in-residence, suggests that Lansdale is to East Texas what William Faulkner was to northern Mississippi. “He understands the culture of the characters,” Sanders says. “The language, the folklore and the superstitions. He recreates the local color masterfully, and that’s why he’s probably the greatest active writer in Texas letters.”

Literally and figuratively, East Texas may be a long way from Florence, Italy, but Joe Lansdale is a giant of letters in both, delivering unique universal characters in an East Texas drawl.

E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo.