"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Deadwood by Pete Dexter


A great Western novel

 
The best novel about Wild Bill Hickock by far, and indeed one of the finest of all Westerns, is Deadwood by Pete Dexter (Random House, 1986).
 
Pete Dexter
 
Wild Bill is shot on page 149 of 365, i.e. only 40% in, but he remains a presence for the whole of the book. Although the story is recounted chiefly around Bill’s friend Colorado Charley, it is really Wild Bill who is the central personage. All the other characters, Charley, Bill’s wife Agnes Lake, the ‘bottle fiend’, Calamity Jane, Pink Bruford's bulldog, and so on, revolve like minor planets around Hickok’s flaming sun. And indeed Wild Bill seems to have been that kind of man: he dominated the scene wherever he went, even in his declining years. Still in his thirties when he was killed, Hickok was losing his eyesight, probably suffered from a venereal disease, gambled poorly and drank too much. He hadn’t been a lawman since Abilene five years before. He was living on his reputation.
 
James Butler Hickok (1837 - 1876)
 
But until August 2nd, 1876, his reputation was more than enough.

Still, Charley is an enormously sympathetic character. The real Colorado Charley, CH Utter (c 1838 – after 1912) grew up, like Bill, in Illinois. He became a prospector, trapper, hunter and guide in Colorado in the 1860s. In 1876 he and his brother Steve took a large wagon train from Georgetown to Cheyenne, where they joined up with Hickok, and moved on to the gold camp of Deadwood. The train was filled with all sorts of prospectors and hopefuls and no fewer than 180 prostitutes.
 
Colorado Charley, CH Utter
 
Charley started a pony express company and was a successful businessman.  He was absent the day Bill was shot but arranged and paid for his funeral. He seems to have looked out for Bill in life as well, giving him money to gamble, for example. He also saw to it when the graveyard had to be moved higher up the mountain. After Bill’s death he ran a bordello in nearby Lead, went back to Colorado and was last heard of running a drugstore in Panama, where we assume he died. He went blind at the end of his life.

Dexter’s Charley is tough, kind, astute, sensitive. The story opens as he and his young brother-in-law, the (fictional) Malcolm Nash move up from Cheyenne to Deadwood with Bill, and join, on the way, a ‘whore man’ bringing in prostitutes. This is Al Swearingen, based on a real character.

The real Ellis Albert Swearengen (1845 – 1904) arrived in Deadwood in May, 1876 with his wife, Nettie (the first of three wives who would divorce him for violent abuse). In April 1877 he opened the opulent Gem Theater which featured prizefights, stage shows and prostitution, as well as controling the opium trade in the town. It brought in an average of $5000 a night, an astonishing sum. When it burned down in the Deadwood fire of September 1879 he rebuilt it in an even more extravagant style. With canny political alliances and large pay-offs he avoided the drive to clean up the town led by Seth Bullock and remained in business until the Gem burned down again in 1899. Swearengen was found dead with a massive head wound in a Denver street in November 1904.
 
The man in the buggy in front of the Gem Theater, Deadwood, bottom left, is thought to be Al Swearengen
 
Dexter’s ‘Swearingen’ is an equally loathsome but very different character (and also very different from the Ian McShane character in the TV series Deadwood). He physically and sexually assaults Malcolm Nash and the young man goes crazy. Nursed by Calamity Jane, Nash recovers somewhat and becomes a disciple of an equally crazed preacher, also loosely based on a real person, the Reverend Weston Smith. Nash haunts Swearingen until the pimp is driven close to madness and flees Deadwood, some time before the fire.

There is no romance between Jane and Bill; indeed Bill can’t stand her and does everything to avoid her. Dexter’s Jane is also not entirely sane (very few in Deadwood are), and is ugly, filthy, alcoholic and violent but is a caring nurse. She tends smallpox patients in Sidney, Nebraska, Deadwood and later Cheyenne, although the suggestion is there that ironically it is she who has unwittingly carried the infection to these towns in the first place.

Another sympathetic character is the savant fool who runs the bath house and collects bottles, which contain, he says, secrets. He is called ‘soft-brained’. Charley bonds with him, especially after the death of Bill.
 
Seth Bullock, a noted Deadwood figure, was later a captain in his friend Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders and afterwards a US marshal
 
Dignified Agnes Lake and the libidinous actress Mrs. Langrishe are, with Charley and Sheriff Bullock, about the sanest residents of Deadwood. Agnes in particular is drawn in almost heroic lines and she too has a great influence before and after her appearance in the town.
 
Agnes Lake Thatcher, Mrs. JB Hickok
 
The sub-plot, almost, of Bullock's business partner Solomon Star falling in love with a Chinese beauty and the tragic outcome is beautifully handled. Solomon is yet another whose sanity wavers.

There is a host of minor characters who play a small part in the tale yet are strongly limned and remain firmly in the memory. The braggart Captain Jack Crawford, for example; Harry Sam Young, the barman in the No. 10; Lurline Monti Verdi the whore (another based on a real person); the thug Boone May with the huge head; Handsome Banjo Dick Brown the singer-gunfighter; others.

Although Dexter’s Deadwood is cited as a source for both the Walter Hill film Wild Bill and the HBO TV show Deadwood, in both cases the screen version is very different indeed from the book. The novel is powerful, funny, moving, exciting and sometimes poetically written. It certainly ranks for me up with Charles Portis’s True Grit, Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and a very few others as one of the greatest Western novels of all time.

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