A black cow­boy’s wild West ad­ven­ture

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Paula L. Woods Woods is a mem­ber of the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle, has writ­ten a black history book of days, four mys­ter­ies and edited sev­eral an­tholo­gies.

Par­adise Sky

A Novel

Joe R. Lans­dale

Mul­hol­land Books; 400 pp., $26

In 2001, Roger D. Har­d­away, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at North­west­ern Ok­la­homa State Univer­sity, noted: “Per­haps the big­gest dis­crep­ancy be­tween the myth and the re­al­ity of the cow­boy leg­end was that the black cowboys were al­most to­tally ig­nored by the mythmakers of the Eastern pub­lish­ing houses and the Hol­ly­wood movie sets.”

Har­d­away was right: Es­ti­mates sug­gest that as many as a quar­ter of 19th and early 20th cen­tury cowboys were African Amer­i­can. Nat Love was one of those over­looked le­gends, a man born into slav­ery in Ten­nessee in 1854, who was given the name Dead­wood Dick af­ter he won mus­tang rid­ing, rop­ing and shoot­ing con­tests in that Dakota Ter­ri­tory town on July 4, 1876, just days af­ter Custer’s dis­as­trous bat­tle at the Lit­tle Bighorn.

Ac­cord­ing to his 1907 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Love vis­ited the site of Custer’s last stand, drove cat­tle through Ari­zona, Texas, Wy­oming, Ne­braska and Old Mexico and rubbed shoul­ders with fron­tier le­gends such as Buf­falo Bill Cody, Frank and Jesse James, Pat Gar- rett and Billy the Kid. Now, Joe R. Lans­dale, the much-ac­claimed Texas writer of mys­ter­ies, science fic­tion and west­erns, has brought his own take to the Nat Love story with his new novel, “Par­adise Sky.”

Lans­dale ap­proaches Love from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, fo­cus­ing on his early years, af­ter slav­ery and in the Western ter­ri­to­ries.

His pro­tag­o­nist starts out life as Wil­lie Jack­son, the teenage son of a freed slave-turned-share­crop­per in East Texas. When Wil­lie’s on a walk into town to get pro­vi­sions, his eyes hap­pen to rest on the back­side of the hatchet-faced third wife of Sam Rug­gert, a bit­ter drunk­ard who in a re­sponse that fore­shad­ows the fate of Em­mett Till and count­less other black youth for decades to come, hastily as­sem­bles a gang of cronies to avenge Wil­lie’s as­sault on white wom­an­hood. Hav­ing al­ready seen a lynch­ing at age 10, Wil­lie doesn’t stick around. He steals a horse and goes to the fam­ily farm, where his pa gives him an old gun and urges him to run.

Wil­lie does, although some hours later he dou­bles back to find his fam­ily’s homestead burned to the ground, Pa and some live­stock with it. Know­ing he can’t win a bat­tle with the well-armed vig­i­lantes, he goes on the run, stum­bling across the iso­lated farm of Tate Lov­ing, a white preacher and Civil War vet­eran who has come to the con­clu­sion that the bib­li­cal sto­ries used to jus­tify Amer­i­can slav­ery are bull and, more­over, that God is no more than a “big watch­maker, and we were the in­nards of his watch, and this here earth we stand on is the watch’s slip­pery sur­face.”

The philo­soph­i­cal and kind­hearted Lov­ing hides Wil­lie, then men­tors him in the clas­sics, as­tron­omy and, more sig­nif­i­cantly, how to han­dle guns. All is fine for sev­eral years, un­til the young man is rec­og­nized by a visi­tor who has seen the wanted poster Rug­gert is­sued — which forces him on the run again, into In­dian Ter­ri­tory, where he changes his name to Nat Love in honor of his men­tor and joins the buf­falo sol­diers.

There he sur­vives a hair-rais­ing In­dian am­bush, deserts his post and even­tu­ally lands in Dead­wood, where he earns the re­spect and friend­ship of the leg­endary Wild Bill Hickok and the fic­tional Bronco Bob (an eth­i­cal sharp­shooter and would-be dime nov­el­ist) as well as the af­fec­tions of Win Finn, a strong and in­de­pen­dent black woman “whose kiss moved me from earth to sky.”

But the vig­i­lantes are never far away, and in due time, they ex­act a ter­ri­ble re­venge on those Nat loves, pro­pel­ling the cow­boy again onto the plains, where he must con­front not only Rug­gert, in whose hate­ful mind “the South will rise again,” but also his own most deeply held be­liefs about the na­ture of God, the value of life and the lim­its of re­venge.

This isn’t Lans­dale’s first time writ­ing about black cowboys or Nat Love — else­where, he’s ac­knowl­edged that read­ing Love’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy in the 1970s spurred a pas­sion­ate in­ter­est in the lives of black cowboys and buf­falo sol­diers, and ear­lier sto­ries and a novella have fea­tured sim­i­lar char­ac­ters and cir­cum­stances. But in “Par­adise Sky,” Lans­dale de­liv­ers a more richly imag­ined, pi­caresque hero, whose ad­ven­tures as cow­boy, In­dian fighter, sharp­shooter, and U.S. mar­shal ri­val those of the real- life black cow­boy and Pull­man porter on whom he is mod­eled, or at least as he por­trayed him­self in print.

By slyly jux­ta­pos­ing the ad­ven­tures of the “real life” Dead­wood Dick with the fan­ci­ful nov­els Bronco Bob pens, Lans­dale un­wit­tingly high­lights the fun house-mir­rored gap be­tween the em­broi­dered facts of Love’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy and the in­ven­tions of this equally fan­tas­tic novel.

Some read­ers may long for an edgier, more his­tor­i­cal Nat Love to emerge — the Nat who pro­fessed a pref­er­ence for hard whiskey in­stead of the sarsaparilla Lans­dale gives him, who railed against slave own­ers in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy with more pas­sion that this kin­der, folk­sier Nat, call­ing them “per­fect devils in hu­man form.” Yet Lans­dale has pulled out all the stops to de­liver a rip-roar­ing tale com­pletely in keep­ing with dime novel tra­di­tions and the cin­e­matic hy­per­bole of “Blaz­ing Sad­dles” or “Django Un­chained.” One hopes, in the process, that his ef­forts lead to greater cu­rios­ity about, and sus­tained literary in­ter­est in, the lives of real black cowboys and their con­tri­bu­tions to the history of the Amer­i­can West.

Mul­hol­land / L ittle, Brown

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