Book review: Paradise Sky

JOE LANSDALE’S Paradise Sky is a fictionalised account of the life of Nat Love, aka Deadwood Dick, one of the Wild West’s most fascinating outlaws. 

Book review: Paradise Sky

Joe Lansdale

Mulholland Books, €22.50

Born in 1854, Nat grew up a slave 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 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 ageing 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 , 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.’ 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.

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