Deadwood by Pete Dexter was first published the same year as Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1986. The award could have just as easily gone to Deadwood as both books are very well written and both books turn the western genre on its head in just about the same way.
The American western has not been the clean-cut altruistic battle between good and evil that many people view it as for some time. Even John Wayne’s movies moved into gray areas. The Searchers, for example, seems like a simplistic story about how bad Indians are, but if you look closely enough, if you can get past the obvious racism in the movie, you’ll find that Wayne’s character, the character who hates the Indians the most, is the one character that is no longer welcome in society. It’s not the girl raised by Indians but Wayne who cannot return to white “civilization” in the end. Even a character as noble as Shane has to leave town in the end of the movie because there is no place for an ex-gunfighter anymore. Taking the turn towards the amoral man-with-no-name stories of the Clint Eastwood type just wasn’t all that big of a leap. Westerns were already on the way there.
What was new with books like Lonesome Dove and Deadwood was the way they took historical figures and events and presented them in a raw, unvarnished, style that bordered on revisionist history. I’m not well-versed enough in the genre to say with certainty, but I imagine both novels were heavily influenced by the new takes on the American West that historians were writing in the 1970’s and 80’s which presented versions of history that focused on Native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese immigrants, freed slaves and women rather than on the on-going, unquestioned story of Manifest Destiny.
Pete Dexter’s Deadwood differs from Lonesome Dove in that all of the characters in it are based on historical people, even the very minor ones. Deadwood could almost pass as the sort of new-journalism Truman Capote was aiming for with In Cold Blood, it’s just about a non-fiction novel as far as I can tell. It’s also a novel with an ensemble cast, something not typically found in a western. The setting is Deadwood, South Dakota during the early years of the town’s existence. Deadwood began as an illegal settlement of miners who violated treaties with Native American tribes in order to prospect for gold in the Black Hills of the Dakota territory. The men who went there at first were all law-breakers just by being there so the overall lawlessness of the place should come as no surprise. The women of Deadwood, at least at first, were largely made up of prostitutes, portrayed in Deadwood as essentially slaves owned body-and-soul by the men who ran the brothels. This is not the Dakota territory of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
The characters in Deadwood include Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane Cannary, Sheriff Seth Bullock, and Charley Utter who functions as the linchpin that keeps all of the other characters together. Utter, a truly decent man, has followed Hickock to Deadwood which has just passed its initial glory days as a mining boom town. Hickock is dying, probably from Syphilis, but his presence will haunt the story and the town long after he has been gunned down. The other characters and their stories circle around Utter who is the one character to continue throughout the entire novel in part because he is one of the historical figures to remain in the area until the end of his life and he seems to have known just about everyone at least in passing.
If books like Deadwood and Lonesome Dove can be said to have moved the western genre forward then the HBO television series Deadwood can be seen has having moved westerns back a bit. (The two appear to be unconnected; there is no credit to Mr. Dexter on the official HBO Deadwood website which I find a bit hard to believe.) The novel is focused on the character of Charley Utter who serves as a moral compass for everyone else, albeit perhaps a damaged one, but Mr. Utter plays a much more secondary role in the series. The television series, instead, sets up an on-going rivalry between Sheriff Seth Bullock, who is morally upright, and Al Swearengen who ends up being a brothel owner with a heart of gold. By the final episodes of the television series the audience is rooting for Swearengen even while his actions remain repulsive. This is not possible in the novel. The Seth Bullock of the novel is not entirely likable the way he is in the series, and Al Swearengen is completely despicable. The Chinese immigrants who lived in Deadwood play a serious part in the novel, several of them are featured characters, but they are basically reduced to a single role throughout most of the series. This seems like a great oversight on the part of the series in my view since the experience of Chinese immigrants in the American West is not one many Americans know well. It strikes me that it could have been a very rich source for possible story lines. According to Wikipedia the owner of the most prosperous brothels in Deadwood were women whom neither the novel nor the television series feature. In both, characters move in and out of the story, just as real people moved in and out of Deadwood, South Dakota. Some are more compelling than others and the resulting novel, like the television series, has a plot like a soap opera–events build to a climax and then keep on going to another climax next week instead of building for a big climactic finish. Things don’t really end, except in death, people just move along.
Maybe, in the end, that is the story of the American West.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009. Looking it over now I ‘m struck by how defensive I appear to be about the Western genre in general. I don’t think I need worry about it. The Western genre certainly has plenty of issues in it’s closet but no more than any other genre really. Even science fiction/fantasy has a sketchy past overall. But I stand by my comments about the television show. Overall, in spite of how good the show was, it was a step backwards for the genre overall. Someday we’ll get the true storylines about the Chinese, the women, everyone else. We’re already getting them in books; we just have to look into the genre a little harder to find them.