Pete Dexter




Date Reviewed:

January 2, 2006

his is the story of Wild Bill Hickok, except that he doesn't survive beyond page 150. Maybe it is the story of Charley Utter - at least he lives through this entire book, unlike so many other characters. Deadwood is not a typical western, there are no ranchers or soldiers or Native Americans - mostly it is about the population of wastrels who come to the mining town of Deadwood in South Dakota looking for gold, though once they get there, no one seems much interested in mining. Mostly they drink, gamble, whore and committing horrific acts of violence. Everyone seems to be just passing time, these don't seem like the determined sturdy pioneers that "won the west".

The beginning of the novel reminded me a lot of Lonesome Dove, which is a wonderful classic. Deadwood starts with Wild Bill, Charles Utter, and his nephew Malcolm Nash guiding a group of Chinese whores and their pimp to Deadwood. Malcolm accidently shoots Wild Bill's horse. It was this bizarre type of event, with unusual characters, that reminded me so much of Lonesome Dove. In MacMurtry's novels of the west, there is always some calamity or foolish individual causing problems for the heroes. But in Lonesome Dove, Gus and Call are sympathetic characters, while I never found any reason to like this portrayal of Wild Bill and Charles. In fact, the only character I liked in this book is Agnes, who is Wild Bill's wife. The portrait of Calamity Jane is especially brutal - maybe she really was as messed up as Dexter describes? Was everyone staggeringly drunk all the time? (Also like Lonesome Dove, Deadwood has been made into a successful TV mini-series, but I have not seen it.)

The moose hunt with Captain Jack is a good example of the aimlessly approach to life that Wild Bill and Charles pursue. They don't even want to hunt the moose, it just seems like something to do. It is an ill planned expedition, and even though a giant bull moose is indeed gunned down, our heroes return to town empty handed.

The story of the China Girl is equally unappealing. The China Girl is the prettiest whore in town. She desires to kill Charles Utter, because he and Wild Bill burned the corpse of her brother in a kiln. (Burning the body that they found is another of the pointless projects in their directionless lives.) But before her tale of revenge can really get going, the China Girl herself is brutally murdered. The intro to this novel says all of these events are real, so the assassination of China Girl is a historical fact.

After Wild Bill and the China Girl are dead, and Agnes has come and gone, Dexter focuses the tale on Calamity Jane - a less likable character is hard to imagine. Sanity is certainly in question. Jane drinks endlessly, gets herself wounded, and then finds her calling in life treating the victims of the smallpox plague. Her treatment seems to consist pouring "the fixer" (some kind of alcohol) down the throats of the diseased victims until they choke. Is this protrayal of Jane supposed to be sympathetic because she will stay with the sick when all the other townsfolk stay away in fear?

This is not uplifting reading. It is violence and disease and hard drinking. The characters inhabit Deadwood until it does them in. Sure, it is interesting reading - but it isn't that fun.