Once upon a time, back in the early '80s, a group of us at AggieCon would sit on some uncomfortable couches in a second-floor hallway in the Memorial Student Center at Texas A&M University and talk into the wee hours of the morning. We were a lot younger then. The group wasn't always the same, but a hardy few were nearly always there: Judy and I, Joe Lansdale, Scott Cupp, Neal Barrett, Jr., Henry Melton, Lewis Shiner, Tom Knowles, and others I'm probably forgetting.
We talked about books and writing and writers and movies and TV shows and anything else that came to mind. One night Joe mentioned that he'd really like to write a book about Deadwood Dick.
Now and then he'd mention that idea again over the years, and he even got to the point of suggesting it to editors, who weren't enamored of the idea. Now, however, thirty years or so on down the road, Joe's in the position of being able to sell pretty much whatever he writes, and he's produced an epic-length novel on the topic that's been dear to his heart for so long, the tale of how a young black man named Willie Jackson became Deadwood Dick, the legendary shootist and hero of a series of pulp novels that stretched the truth a might.
What we get in Paradise Sky is supposedly the true story, as told by Deadwood Dick, himself. Or as told by him as filtered through the imagination of Joe R. Lansdale, which probably makes it a better tale.
Willie Jackson has to leave home suddenly because he makes the mistake of looking at a white woman's fully clothed behind as she's hanging out the wash. Her husband takes offense, and before long Willie's father and a pig are killed, the house is burned, and Willie's on the run. He's taken in by a kindly man who doesn't mind that Willie's black, and he learns a lot before his nemesis comes calling again. And in fact, that's the overarching story in the novel. Throughout his many adventures (in the army, fighting Indians, living in Deadwood, becoming a marshal and working with Hanging Judge Parker, falling in love, and so on), Willie's never free of the threat from the man who's out to kill him.
Everything that Willie (aka Nat Love, aka Deadwood Dick) relates is replete with Lansdale's usual storytelling zest and energy, and as always in a Lansdale novel there are laughs and violence, often on the same page. There are bits that are pure Lansdale. For example when a preacher is listing his sins for Willie, he says that "I actually did service a goat once." Nat responds, "Did you and the goat write?" The preacher says, "No. But we parted friends." Great stuff.