Entertaining and distressing in equal measure, Leather Maiden is a bruising jolt from an immoral moralist
Reviewed by Spencer Parsons, Fri., Aug. 15, 2008
Leather Maidenby Joe R. Lansdale
Knopf, 304 pp., $23.95
I know right now it's a fanboy world, and we just live in it, but what does it say that our current life during wartime is being most complexly explored (at least in mass culture) through the aesthetics of superhero comics? Personally, I'd love to join the hand-wringing over how sucky it is that seemingly every movie's a superhero movie, except that The Dark Knight and Iron Man and even – no, especially – Hancock have done a better job than the last couple of years' worth of politically conscious Oscar bait have at diagnosing and dancing around the many-splendored ways in which We the People are fucked in the head. At least they've managed pretty well within the limitations of the PG-13 rating and a range of dubious political stances on a spectrum of center to liberal (at once guilty and thrilled over their proto-fascist fantasies).
The ever-prolific Joe R. Lansdale knows no such limits, but he certainly knows from fucked-in-the-head. Working the E.C. Horror aisle of the comic shop, Lansdale's hilariously alarming new novel, Leather Maiden, follows Gulf War veteran and Pulitzer-nominated journalist Cason Statler home to Camp Rapture, Texas, and into investigating the disappearance of a local college student. In Lansdale's hands, this of course leads into a moral miasma of blackmail, kidnapping, sex videos, serial killing, political assassination, Internet cult-poetry, and a little torture, for good measure (used as much to elicit confessions as to relieve boredom). East Texas is no Gotham, and Cason Statler's no Batman, but there's plenty Joker to go around, with an unfolding series of murderous outrages in which crime employed for prankish game-playing becomes something like terrorism for the hell of it. Add that one of the heroes – and perhaps the most purely entertaining character – is a self-diagnosed sociopath named Booger, whose post-Gulf War trauma is that he enjoyed the hostilities way too much, and you might be excused for wondering if Lansdale has taken a socially concerned turn toward moral allegory.
But I honestly don't think he means to "bring the war home," and my only suspicions about his agenda spring from wondering if he has one beyond making us laugh and shudder at another nasty tale from his crypt. Nevertheless, that Lansdale's feral, shit-stained brand of Americana should start to look so much like a Southern-fried mash-up of headlines from The Huffington Post should give a reader pause. Moral ambiguity doesn't begin to describe it, but that doesn't mean the sardonic chatterboxes who populate this swamp lack compasses for navigating, just that knowing which way is north may not help anyone get out alive. Entertaining and distressing in equal measure, and for all kinds of reasons, Leather Maiden is a bruising jolt from an immoral moralist, who finds it slightly less shocking and a little more funny than we do to ask if we all live in Camp Rapture now.
Joe. R. Lansdale will appear at this weekend's ArmadilloCon. For more information, visit www.armadillocon.org.