Randall Reads: “Deadwood” by Pete Dexter
And “NO” it’s not that on which the HBO series of the same name was based.
Before you reach the table of contents, you do get a word from the author, saying:
“The large events and the settings of this novel–the fire that destroyed Deadwood, the assassinations of Bill Hickok and the China Doll, the weather, the life and travels of Charley Utter–are all real.
The Characters, with the exception of Malcolm Nash, are also real, and were in Deadwood at the time these events occurred.”
I know I read several times (granted, on the internets) before watching the first season of the television series or reading this book that Pete Dexter’s work was very much integral to the creation of the HBO series.
I’m not going to say I’ve done a whole lot of investigating since finishing the book this morning, but I wouldn’t even be all that surprised to know that nobody on the creative team had even opened the front cover of Dexter’s book, especially in light of the aforementioned quote. My sense is that both pieces of art were derived from researching real-life historic persons and events from that place in American history and invoking the creative spirit from there.
In other words, aside from some names, I don’t see much similar between the show and the book. Hence, they should be considered separately, other than that I would not likely have read the book had I not also recently enjoyed watching the beginning of the series (and then found a second-hand copy of the book during a timely visit to Pegasus Book Exchange).
My interest level in the old “wild west” was never that great, so my knowledge of people like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane was of such a level that I’d not necessarily have even though of them in the context of Deadwood, South Dakota any more than I would have, say, western Texas. Charley Utter, who is the central character throughout the novel, is someone whose name I believe I had never even heard, and, if I had, I’d completely forgotten the context.
Because of this and, again, because I’d just watched 12 hours or so of the HBO series, I entered the world of Deadwood as described by Pete Dexter with some very strong conceptions about characters the second they appeared in writing. Within the first few pages, you have met Charley, Wild Bill, and Al Swearingen. If you’ve seen the HBO show, you know how strongly drawn those characters are on the screen.
It’s of great credit to Mr. Dexter that, writing the book without the knowledge his words would one day be competing with HBO-strength characterizations of the same historical figures, it isn’t long before you’re (mostly) considering the characters anew. It’s not only that he clearly staked his claim to the fictionalization of the history of Deadwood in a completely different manner as did the people with the HBO production, but also that he writes his characters in a very lively fashion. Maybe that’s partly a benefit of working within a genre such as the western, but I doubt it’s that simple.
I also happen to be a bit of a sucker for strong character development, so there’s that.
The style can be a bit tricky in some spots. The word “peeder” appears repeatedly and failed not once to give me a stop. I also think the use of “could of/would of/should of” in place of the proper contractions probably was meant to do something other than remind me of the fact that 90% of the people on the internet actually type those for all to see publicly without intention, but that’s what I got, again making me pause each instance.
Small, niggling things, but they stand out in my head. Should be noted that’s a small price for what was otherwise a very enjoyable book.
The narrative is divided into five “parts,” the first four of which are named for a character around whom much of the action within revolves. The fifth is a rather short summary of Charley’s life after leaving Deadwood that, honestly, adds little (if anything) to the story beyond a bit of closure .
Malcolm Nash, the one completely fictional character in the novel, plays an interesting thread through the story, but his role is a bit thin in the middle bits, which makes one wonder at the reason for creating him at all. It’s not that he seems out of place, mind you. It’s more that I had a natural tendency to wonder a little more about the character seeing as it was mentioned right at the top that he was not in the historic records and was, hence, created out of whole ink. Perhaps it is a failure of the reader to have expected more from such an entry into the story, but I can’t see how anyone would look at it differently.
There’s also a very realistic chance I’ve just missed something important in my reading. Wouldn’t be the first time.
On the front cover of the paperback is a quote from Jonathan Franzen, saying “If you want to call Deadwood a Western, you might as well call The House of Mirth chick lit.”
Not even having read the latter, I can say I understand what Franzen was getting at with this, and think it’s a valid consideration. Calling a book a “Western,” much as “chick lit” or “science fiction” does have that effect of “ghettoization” of the work into its genre and is somehow looked at as something less. Or, that’s the talk these days, isn’t it?
What I’m meaning to clarify as being important here is that nobody who enjoys a good book should pass on this one with a “but I don’t really like “Westerns.” The work itself will survive such an err, but is a huge disservice to the “serious reader” Mr. Franzen likes to concern himself about. Pete Dexter has written a serious book for serious readers of all sorts.
Even those who have cemented in their brain the image of Wild Bill Hickok as the brother of the guy from ‘Kung Fu.’
We can overcome.