I ran across Paradise Sky as a recommendation on my library’s eBook site, having never heard of Joe R. Lansdale and not being a huge fan of the Western genre. Then I read its opening sentences:
“Now, in the living of my life, I’ve killed deadly men and dangerous animals and made love to four Chinese women, all of them on the same night and in the same wagon bed, and one of them with a wooden leg, which made things a mite difficult from time to time. I even ate some of a dead fellow once when I was crossing the plains, though I want to rush right in here and make it clear I didn’t know him all that well, and we damn sure wasn’t kinfolks, and it all come about by a misunderstanding.”
Yeah, I was hooked, right then and there. I tore through it in a couple of days, thoroughly enjoying the tale of a black cowboy roaming the West in the days immediately following the Civil War.
Young Willie is a freed slave forced to go on the run after earning a white man’s enmity by appreciatively eyeing his wife’s hind quarters. He is taken in by kindly Tate Loving, who teaches him farming, reading, and shooting, among other things. After Tate’s death, Willie names himself Nat Love in Tate’s honor and joins the army as a buffalo soldier in west Texas. His adventures carry him throughout the West, from Deadwood to Dodge City, as he tries to escape the ghosts of his past and lead a life worth living.
While Lansdale’s story is loosely based on the real Nat Love, this story is definitely a tall tale that appears to be only hobbled to the facts regarding the Deadwood shooting contest. Everything else appears to be the author’s artistic license. As Nat’s companion Bronco Bob says, “I might try and get some newspaper work here until I can write books about you and me and our adventures. Some of them will be true.”
Two things stood out to me in Paradise Sky: Lansdale’s great prose and strong characterization. The diction of the book is colloquial and contributes nicely to the first-person narration by Nat. Lansdale favors a long, rambling sentence structure for Nat’s voice, yet this gave the text a period feel without being cumbersome. His clever use of wording also stands out, as does Nat’s optimistic tone even when discussing horrible outcomes.
The characters are vibrant, especially Nat’s friends Cullen and Bob. Many of the events of the book have emotional impact because we feel connected to the characters. Their progression and development is handled nicely. Again, the memoir format of Nat’s narration makes for an enjoyable experience as we get distinct voices of both who he was at the time of the events and who he was at the time of the retelling.
Warning: there are a lot of unpleasant subjects in the book, ranging from the sights and smells of the Old West to murder, rape, and torture to blatant racism. Language is spicy throughout. This isn’t often a “feel-good” story… you’ve been warned.
I completely enjoyed all aspects of Joe Lansdale’s Paradise Sky, from the feel to the story to the characters. One of the pleasures of reading is the random discovery of a great book, and this one hit the jackpot!