I have been a fan of Joe Lansdale’s work for a number of years and still consider his 2012 “hillbilly noir” novel Edge of Dark Water to be one of my all-time favorites. I mention that one here because Paradise Sky reminds me of Edge of Dark Water in tone, its bigger-than-life characters, and a generally outlandish plot that keeps the reader on the edge of his seat for several hundred pages.
Paradise Sky serves as the fictional autobiography of Nat Love, an African-American cowboy who after winning most of the events in a Deadwood, Dakota Territory, rodeo was given the nickname Deadwood Dick by his friends (taken from the already popular dime novel character of the same name). The fictional Nat Love of Paradise Sky, in fact, becomes the hero of a series of dime novels all his own (but as a white cowboy and not as the black man he really is), but points out on Paradise Sky’s first page that he is here “to set the record straight.” It will be up to each reader to decide just how “straight” Nat then proceeds to tell his story. But what a story it is.
It all begins a few years after the Civil War when twenty-year-old Willie, while running a town errand for his ex-slave father, lets his eyes stray for precisely the wrong moment in time. Before he knows what’s hit him, Willie is running for his life, his father has been murdered, and the family home is burning to the ground. Thus begins the great adventure that will transform Willie from ex-slave to one of the most famous cowboys in the country.
Along the way, Willie (who takes to calling himself Nat Love after this man) will stumble upon the white man who becomes a second father to him; spend some time fighting Indians as a Buffalo soldier; twice meet the woman of his dreams; befriend Will Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Charlie Utter; become a U.S. Marshall working out of Ft. Smith, Arkansas, a railroad porter, and finally, a writer. But no life story runs in a straight line, and Willie’s is no exception.
There is, however, one constant in Willie’s story: the white man who one day imagines that he catches Willie staring at his wife’s generous rear-end as the woman strains to hang their wet laundry out to dry. When he first ran for his life, Willie believed that this insanely-jealous man would loose interest in him soon enough, and that he would be allowed to make a new life for himself as long as he never returned to his East Texas home. But that is not what happened – and by the time Willie figures out that the chase will end only with his death or that of his persecutor, it is almost impossible for him to protect himself from the madman.
Bottom Line: Paradise Sky, a bit reminiscent of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (the highest compliment I can pay it), is a rousing western adventure that from page-to-page is equally likely to have the reader laughing out loud as shedding a tear or two. This one is great fun.