Published June 16th 2015.
“My name is Nat Love, as you may well know. I am also called Deadwood Dick, and you have wronged me and the woman I love.”
One of my favourite Westerns is Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”.The film contains the famous line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” and takes that line as its premise in its examination of how myth often overtook fact in the forging of the West.
Lansdale’s “Paradise Sky” beautifuly explores this territory:
“Now, In the living of my life, I’ve killed deadly men and dangerous animals and made love to four Chiniese 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 the 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, and we damn sure wasn’t kinfolks, and it ll come about by a misunderstanding.”
The exaggerated and baroque telling of the stories that surround the figures of novel appeal to me as a classic example of the human tendency toward embellishment:
“I will admit to a bit of true curiosity as to how that backside of hers was far more attractive than the front, but I wasn't about no mischief of any kind."
His imagery is à la Sergio Leone in a pastiche-like kind of way:
“’I’d rather shoot you, then shoot myself,’ he said.
‘Okay. You shoot me, then shoot yourself.’
‘What if I shoot you, then I make an escape?’
‘I’d rather it not work that way.’
‘But it could.’
‘Here’s the deal: you shoot me only if you have reckoned you’re going to have to shoot yourself, otherwise we’ll try for escape together.’
The figures of the Wild West were in action less than 200 years ago, yet look at all the godlike and uncanny deeds that are attributed to them and the inhuman drama that we’re told their lives were filled with. These real-life characters who were often just thugs and criminals have been transformed, after kicking the bucket, into icons whose sagas now bear little resemblance to their actual lives.
What is a myth? Did we invented it? Not really. Myth tells the truth in a certain way. “Paradise Sky” serves as a the perfect blueprint for how all mythic belief systems operate. If we magnify the distortions by 10 times or more we can see what tiny little wisps of truth may actually lie buried in the accounts of the characters who are said to have roamed the Wild West ages ago.
As with some previous attempts, Lansdale has perfected the technique of taking simple, everyday language and making it sound literary, turning cussing into poetry. Descriptions are colourful and expressive. Action is rendered economical, terse and compelling, while dialogue is most vivid, punctuated with jokes and Lansdale’s summaries of longer tirades: “His eyes was aimed on a fly sitting on a stack of papers on his desk. That bug would lift its wings now and then as if to fly, but it was just a posture. He stayed where he was. Every time those wings lifted, Colonel Hatch would hold his breath, as if fearing it would take to the air and buzz away. Way he was watching that damn fly you’d have thought he was beading down on a charging Apache.”
I’ve talked about Lansdale’s dialogue en passant, but I must elaborate some more. Some of it downright funny. Amid the one-liners and the slosh, the homey dialogue, Lansdale explores what it means to be human. On top of that, he just makes it all seem a little more interesting:
“Chocktaw got one of his socks and some rags out of his saddle bag. You could smell that sock even with the rain and the wind blowing. It wasn’t pleasant.
‘You really going to use that sockj^’’ Doolittle said.
‘Ain’t you got no clean ones?’
‘So you’re just being mean?’
‘I am. I used it to wipe a little cow doo off my boots when I changed socks yesterday, so there might be something in them you can chew on.’
Chocktaw pushed the socks up close to Doolittle’s face.
‘Oh, that’s smells terrible. I’ve changed my mind. Go on and shoot me.’
The absurdity of Lansdale’s characters is a must-see (read?). A persisting theme of the novel is the gap between who a person is and who they appear to be, and watching a Lansdale character slowly reveal their many layers over the course of a story is always something to watch for.
If it feels stagey, that’s because it is.