Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Review: "Paradise Sky" by Joe R. Lansdale
For over three decades, Nagadoches, Texas’ favorite son, Joe R. Lansdale, has been peppering the landscape of literature with the stories that horrify, humor and enlighten his fan base. Yet, despite a few movies being made from his books, most recently the fantastic adaption of Cold in July, he remains utterly on the outskirts of popularity, maybe due to his refusal to stick to one genre and that is really a shame, because he is one of the truly great American, with a capital A, writers we have, able to trace his lineage not only to writers as varied as Flannery O’ Conner and Jim Thompson, but to this country’s greatest writers like Mark Twain. He is comfortable with the gruesome, as in his novel The Nightrunners, the bizarre, with his trio novels set in a post-apocalyptic drive-in theater, and noir, as his out-there novel Freezer Burn shows. But more recently, he is finding a bit of a wider audience with the western genre, and this novel, Paradise Sky, caps off what I feel is a loose trilogy of that mythic age, starting with the brooding Edge of Dark Water and the blackly comic novel, The Thicket. This is a larger novel, and something with a bit more emotional substance than the other two, since it has the same amount of sequences that will gross you out as there are that will make you cry. And as always, Lansdale’s wry sense of humor permeates almost every passage, a mixture of directness and down-home wisdom that simply can’t be imitated. The novel is the fictionalized story of Willie Johnson, aka Nat Love, aka Deadwood Dick, a black man who, as his mother told him, was destined for greatness. After a minor squabble leaves his father dead and the life he knew in pieces, he begins his journey across the American west, with deep, unshakable values from a man named Mr. Loving, the first white man he meets that treats him as an equal. He becomes, at various points, a Buffalo solider, which ends in a heart-racing battle with Apache Indians, a bouncer at a bar in Deadwood, directly under Al Swearengen, and a famous gunman who wins the heart of his one true love, named Win, who he first meets killing rats to make extra money. Soon, his past catches up to him, and he must seek out vengeance against those that harmed him and took away what was good in his life. As I said, this book has many tear-jerking moments, like the death of Mr. Loving, and the goodbyes he has with his friends. But what really makes this, and Lansdale’s other Westerns, a bit different, is how they are written with a modern eye, where not everyone in them is a racist or a stone cold killer, and values, even ones frowned upon in such an uncivilized society, must be upheld if you want to be human. This and other subversions of the genre, including one very sad ending to one character I didn’t see coming, make this one of Lansdale’s best, and the possible denouement for an amazing trilogy.