“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Sunday, August 16, 2015
Review: PARADISE SKY by Joe Lansdale
Born in 1854, Nat (pronounced ‘Nate’) grew up a slave on a plantation in East Texas. In Lansdale’s novel, the young Nat Love – a self-confessed “runaway ass-looker, part-time horse thief and sometime farmhand” – escapes a small Texas town one step head ahead of a noose-dangling posse, accused by local bigot Sam Ruggert of disrespecting his wife. Nat joins the US Army as a cavalryman, goes to war with the Apache, and subsequently deserts and drifts west to the lawless towns of Deadwood and Dodge City, where his reputation as a horseman and sharpshooter becomes legendary.
Lansdale’s account of Love’s life is broadly in line with the historical truth – the aging Love, now a Pullman porter, is telling us his story in a first-person narrative – but the story is also concerned with exploring how facts become wildly distorted by legend. At one point, Nat reads a dime novel about his old friend, Wild Bill Hickok. “It was the biggest batch of balderdash I have ever read,” reports Nat, “but it was pretty entertaining once I made up my mind it wasn’t no true-life story.”
Best known for his award-winning Texas-set ‘Hap and Leonard’ crime novels, but also renowned as a horror writer and his work as a superheroes comic-book author, Lansdale is happily printing the legend in Paradise Sky. Relentlessly pursued by the vengeful Sam Ruggert throughout the Old West, Nat Love’s life is a series of shoot-outs, near-death experiences and encounters with famous names, including the notorious ‘hanging judge’ Isaac Parker and Wild Bill himself. It’s a hugely entertaining tale, not least because Nat Love makes for an engaging storyteller, a man of rudimentary education but one with a flair for dryly humorous vernacular. He also has a sharp eye for the casual racism of the Wild West, such as when Nat volunteers for the Ninth Cavalry, only to be told by a Colonel that, “We got plenty of riding niggers. What we need is walking niggers for the goddamn infantry.”
‘I figured [Nat observes] anything that had the tag “goddamn” in front of it wasn’t for me.’
That wryly coarse vernacular tone is present throughout, and suggestive of how Huckleberry Finn might have gone had Huck and Jim abandoned the Mississippi and struck West (the novel opens with an epigraph from Mark Twain). Indeed, racism and bigotry underpin the entire story, as Nat struggles to escape those malign forces and establish his right to be accepted as a man on his own merits, the colour of his skin notwithstanding.
Lansdale is also excellent when it comes to the humdrum brutality of the Old West, and particularly on how cheap life was. “I just turned and shot,” the teenage outlaw Kid Red tells Nat. “Bullet went right through the dog and hit that kid. He just sort of sat down out from under his bowler hat. That dog and him didn’t so much as whimper.”
Overall, Paradise Sky is a charming blend of the starkly realistic, especially when it comes to the primitive living conditions to be found in Deadwood and Dodge City, and the wildly romantic notion of the outlaw life, with Nat Love a self-deprecating myth-maker who is as keenly aware of his own limitations as a hero as he is of the reader’s desire for credible truth. “Most of it is as true as I know how to make it,” he tells us, “keeping in mind nobody likes the dull parts.”
True or otherwise, Paradise Sky is very rarely dull. ~ Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.