The Last Paradise is a grand, sweeping panoramic novel of post-Civil War Galveston, Texas, in 1900. It is a poetic novel of warmth and humor, of philosophic musings and deep insights into the human psyche. I was reminded of the writing of John Steinbeck, in that both often dealt with themes involving the struggle of the working class. This is Kasenow’s debut novel, yet it is imbued with a rich flair and characterization rare for any novel. The friendship of two rough working men, Newt Haskins and Maxwell Hayes, and their lives and interactions with the racially diverse inhabitants of an area of Galveston that was known as the Alleys makes up much of the book. The descriptions of Galveston during the Reconstruction era leading up to and including the infamous 1900 hurricane are wondrous. The book is like a time capsule, taking the readers to that time of Jim Crow laws, the Klan and crooked cops, making the readers feel they are there and witnessing it all.
Galveston was a paradise in many ways, and the moneyed businessmen of the city tried their best to market that sort of image to companies like Sears to draw even more wealth to the city and their coffers. The title of the book acts on different levels, also being ironic, in that if it could be said that Galveston was a sort of paradise, it was a fallen one, due to pervasive class and racial injustices that ran rampant through the city like the proverbial worm in the apple. The people of the Alleys serve as the cohesive focus of the novel, and characters such as the simple-minded woman called Burly Horse and the love of her life, a man called Marbles who had his head kicked by a horse when he was twelve, are very memorable creations that seem as if they could step right out of the pages into your living rooms.
The novel starts with a court scene. Newt and Maxwell are up before Judge Hammer, because they supposedly were having a drunken knife fight. We learn later that it was something more, and the "knife fight" was a diversion, but all they know at the time is they’re before a judge known for his toughness and mysogynism with an incompetent lawyer defending them. It’s one of many funny scenes in the book. They stage as much of the proceedings as they can, having Burly Horse masquerade as Newt’s lover and the reason behind the fight, as the third point of a romantic triangle. She shouts out at various times "Kill ‘im, Newt! Kill ‘im!"
Because they throw the judge off on tangents as he talks to them, and messes with his train of thought by their bizarre and unlikely reason for their knife fight, he goes relatively easy on them. He tells Newt in a humorous interchange:
"I’m going to fine you three dollars, with the stipulation that you don’t have a drink for one year." "I can do that, Your Honor," Newt said. "Like hell you can! That’s three-hundred-and sixty-five days without a drink. Not one single drop." "Yes, sir." "Of alcohol." "Beer, too?" "No alcohol of any kind!" "That doesn’t seem to be hardly fair," Newt whined.The kicker is he also has to do a year’s worth of "community service, three times a week, at St. Mary’s Orphanage." Newt’s protestation that "No way, You Honor! I hate kids!" falls on deaf ears. The judge tells him it’s either that or "it’s one year in the big house." Maxwell talks about his dad, claiming: "My Pappy died at Shilo. Fightin’ for the Rebs." He shows the judge a Civil War pistol he has with him, which kind of freaks the judge out: "Jesus Christ! What the hell’s he doing with a gun in my courtroom?" Max has only one bullet in the gun, a golden one. When the judge asks him why, he says:
"I can’t get into too much trouble with a single shot," Maxwell answered. "I can only shoot one man. With six bullets I can kill six."The Last Paradise pits Maxwell and Newt against Boss Connor, a ruthless businessman who is an archetype of white supremacy and racial prejudice. Boss Conner owns the sawmill Maxwell and Newt work at, and has his fingers in many other pies, including being the owner of the bar and whorehouse where another memorable figure, the albino Bleach, acts as the proprietor. Jenny, one of the working women at the whorehouse and one of Maxwell's love interests, and her son Cody are two more multifacted and three dimensional characters that inhabit the book's pages. Old Man Connor owns the cops, also, and orders the cruel policeman Brood Hale to beat Maxwell up on more than one occasion in the book. He wants to prevent the "coloreds" from demanding better pay and being involved in a union, and he doesn’t like to see them with any of the white women of the city. Maxwell’s eventual revenge against Hale is one of several superbly realized scenes in the novel. If you like sweeping historical novels that draw you into to the tale and make you empathize with the characters, if you like books that will grab a hold of you, and thrill you with both lots of action and descriptive, poetic language, The Last Paradise is one of the year’s must reads. It should be on every best selling books list, and it is a very impressive debut from an extremely gifted author. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more novels by Michael Kasenow in the future.
REVIEWED BY DOUGLAS R. COBB