The Donut Legion by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I want to love Joe R. Lansdale. I really do. The fact that Lansdale essentially invented the modern "Weird Western" genre with Dead in the West makes him a true visionary - albeit one with a pension for the brazenly bizarre. Plus, he wrote Bubba Ho-Tep, the source material for one of the more fascinating entries in Bruce Campbell's filmography. Despite his plethora of creative ideas, however, I find myself routinely disappointed in his execution. Alas, The Donut Legion is no exception.
When I stumbled across The Donut Legion on cloudLibrary, I was thrilled. After all, this book has three of my favorite topics: donuts, cults, and aliens. What's not to love? Before reading the first page, I had visions of Lansdale bending the rules and blending genres like he's done so many times before. Much to my disappointment, the book that I envisioned in my mind was infinitely more memorable than what the author ultimately crafted. Bummer.
The general gist of the novel is as follows: Charlie Garner, a moderately successful writer with prior experience in law enforcement, searches for his MIA ex-wife after a ghostly visit in the middle of the night. Charlie's ex-wife, Meg, has become mixed up in the goings-on of a local doomsday cult known as the "Saucer People" - an organization that operates a chain of donut stores while waiting for salvation via the imminent return of space aliens. Imagine Krispy Kreme run by L. Ron Hubbard, and you've got a pretty good idea of Lansdale's premise. As Charlie delves deeper into the Saucer People, he recruits a colorful cast of characters for assistance: his bodybuilding P.I. brother, Felix; Felix's brilliant lawyer girlfriend, Cherry; and a would-be investigative reporter, Amelia Moon (who goes by the nickname "Scrappy"). The main villain of the novel is a preternaturally tall murderer known as "Cowboy," who parades around town accompanied by a leashed pet chimpanzee (which, Charlie frequently reminds us, is not a monkey). True to type, Lansdale once again walks the fine line between bold and bizarre, conjuring characters that are truly unique to his oeuvre. If nothing else, at least the author has that going for him.
While Lansdale does retain his irreverent humor throughout The Donut Legion, the book is decidedly less supernatural/otherworldly than I had hoped. Doomsday cults have been addressed in a variety of novels (Eden West, Agnes at the End of the World, and Lovecraft Country are among my favorites), but the genre is ripe with possibilities. The cult at the heart of The Donut Legion is a mashup of Heaven's Gate and the Church of Scientology; however, Lansdale fails to imbue the Saucer People with the earnest devotion of the former or the political power of the latter.
Even if The Donut Legion doesn't live up to expectations, I'm confident that this entry into Lansdale's catalogue will satisfy his quirky fanbase. It's just a shame that Lansdale didn't embrace his inner X-Files aficionado and let loose with his supernatural stylings. If he had done so, The Donut Legion might have elevated its status to a more uniquely satisfying treat - something akin to Voodoo Doughnut, rather than the generic sweetness of Krispy Kreme.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.