Review: Paradise Sky, by Joe R. Lansdale
Mulholland/Little, Brown, 2015. 400 pp. $26
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. . . . it all come about by a misunderstanding.
So begins Paradise Sky, as darkly funny, searing, and engaging a tall tale as you could want. The narrator is Willie, growing up in Reconstruction-era Texas, a dangerous, terrifying place for a young black man. Willie’s troubles begin when his eyes linger on a white woman’s rear end while she’s hanging up the wash: Her husband, a homicidal fool named Ruggert, proclaims that Willie raped her and should swing for it. Willie wants to laugh it off, and if he were white, he could have, particularly given the woman involved. But the situation is deadly serious, and if there’s a lesson in this novel, it’s that the Ruggerts of the world are unreachable (a painful fact underlined by the recent murders in Charleston). Innocent people die because of Ruggert’s mania, including Willie’s father, and the young man must flee.
However, the charm of this novel is that no matter how bleak, or even tragic, the circumstance, humor’s never far behind, sometimes neck-and-neck. I can’t remember the last time a novel made me laugh so hard. Earthy metaphors flavor the narrative, as with one description of Ruggert, “who latched on to notions like a thirsty tick and wasn’t happy until he had sucked all the blood out of them.” Another character smelled of onions, liquor, and “mating skunk,” while a third was such a gifted tracker, he could “follow a ghost in moccasins.” But the funniest part is the dead-pan absurdity. I knew I wanted to be a writer when, as a teenager, I read James Thurber. Lansdale’s got a different sensibility, yet his characters share one Thurberesque quality: They swim in their sense of the ridiculous, as though it were perfectly natural.
But back to our story. Willie finds a haven in an unlikely place, a farm belonging to a former preacher who served in the Confederate Army alongside Ruggert. But Nate Loving, the farmer, is himself unusual, having decided that a belief in racial superiority makes no more sense than the Scripture commonly cited to justify it, and so has no further use for either. Nate teaches Willie everything he knows about riding, shooting, gardening, and the constellations, which is, as Nate might say himself, a pretty fair piece of knowledge. However, Ruggert eventually catches on where Willie has gone, and so the fugitive flees once more, taking the name Nat Love as tribute to the white man who was like a father to him.
Nat learns many trades during his adventures, none of which he might have figured on as a career–soldier, bouncer, spittoon-emptier, and rat-killer, to name some. He befriends Wild Bill Hickok, enters a shooting contest, and falls in love–and all three activities are related. But Nat’s fame and accomplishments can’t protect him from the race prejudice that’s all around, or Ruggert’s tireless efforts to track him down.
If you read Paradise Sky–and of course, I recommend that you do–don’t read the jacket flap, which is practically a complete synopsis. And ignore the discussions about religion, which, though they fit the time and story, can be tendentious, especially if you’re not Christian. Luckily, they’re brief.
Disclaimer: I obtained my copy of this novel from the public library.