Saturday, February 13, 2021

Review of Paradise Sky by Joe Lansdale

Different writers are to be read for different reasons, and with Joe Lansdale it's a combination of style and edge. I almost wrote 'plot' instead of 'edge' , but upon closer examination it's larger, the qualities—the edge—of dialogue, story, and character which draw the reader's attention and have them bought into what are could be standard story entrees—tragedy, revenge, drama, mystery, etc. Paradise Sky, Lansdale's 2015 western, is a steak knife, sharpened to a bleeding edge.

Paradise Sky is the story of Willy Jackson. Set in East Texas a couple years after the Civil War, Willy is a young black man trying to make it as a farmer when he runs into a little bad luck on the way home from the store after having a gander at the figure of a lady hanging wash. Her husband not pleased at Willy's wandering eyes, he gives chase with a noose, and Willy goes on the run. Tragedy ensuing, the young man is forced out of his town and on the road. With little to his name except an old horse and a busted revolver, Willy's luck improves shortly thereafter, and he learns the ways of the world. Good luck not lasting forever, however, it isn't long before the winds change again, and every bit of learning, plus a little good instinct, is needed to stay alive.

On the surface it would be quick and easy to judge Paradise Sky something of a written version of Tarantino's Django. The story of a black man making a place for himself with a pistol in a white man's world is at the root of both. But Willy Jackson is no Django. A deeper, more complex character, Lansdale is able to get inside the head of Jackson in a way Tarantino does not. Whether it be words or decisions, the reader comes to know the man, and while sympathy is too easy given the basic conflict of the plot, there are enough peripheral elements to round out his character beyond the baseness of revenge.

I have a soft spot in my reader's heart for writers deft with simile and metaphor. Lansdale is a master. Time and time and time again, the writer, speaking through Willy, comes up with one-liners that say more than the words on the page. It's possible Lansdale is simply taking advantage of Texas vernacular that I know little about, regardless, the color of language is bright and dynamic, and to be honest, probably is half the satisfaction of the novel. Plotting is good, but the whole is held aloft by Lansdale's ability to continually keep the reader glued to the railroad chug of diction.

In the end, Paradise Sky is more tasty goodness from Lansdale. Classic western but with a black man front and center, Lansdale doesn't shy away from the realities of the post-Civil War setting, and yet does so in a way that allows Willy Jackson to stand apart—a hero with his own idiosyncrasies. If you like well-written action-dramas in a Western setting with a focus on sharp dialogue, check out Paradise Sky. Westerns are not as popular as they once were, but Lansdale proves there is still some life left.

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