Sunday, June 03, 2012


My first exposure to Pete Dexter's 1986 novel, Deadwood, (although I didn't know it at the time) was the intriguing HBO series of the same name.  It was not until much later that I stumbled upon the existence of the Dexter novel, and even then, I did not immediately make a connection between the two.  Now that I have finally read the book, I have to believe that the HBO series was heavily influenced by Dexter’s work, the main difference being the characters upon which the two versions chose to focus.  Dexter himself has said otherwise, and since both Deadwood representations are based on historical fact, that could certainly be the case.  The tone of the two, however, is remarkably similar, down to the style of humor, audacious sex scenes, and at times, rather shocking dialogue.

The HBO show features Wild Bill Hickok (early on), bar owner Al Swearingen, and Sheriff Seth Bullock most often - and eventually evolves into a personal battle between the latter two.  The novel, instead, revolves more around the personal experiences of Wild Bill's best friend Charlie Utter.  The two plots have much in common, but the novel offers more complexity than is found in the television series.  Each also features a memorable cast of secondary characters, including Calamity Jane, Solomon Starr, and a Chinese "godfather" character.

Photo - Kyle Johnson
Pete Dexter disposes of Wild Bill Hickok almost as quickly as HBO killed him off, but unlike in the HBO series, Hickok's death has a bearing on everything that follows it.  Dexter describes the Wild West in a manner that had to seem unusual to readers of the day- although, coincidentally, Deadwood and Larry McMurtry's similarly styled novel, Lonesome Dove, were both first published in 1986.  The two books will be long remembered because of the almost mythical worlds populated by believable, very human, characters, they create.  Everything is bigger than life despite the hardscrabble environment so common to the American West of the last decades of the nineteenth century.  I will state the obvious here: if you enjoyed Lonesome Dove you will love Deadwood - and vice versa.

Deadwood is perfect for those who enjoy their historical fiction mixed with a heavy dose of irreverent humor.  Pete Dexter has not strayed far from the truth of what really happened in Deadwood during its heyday, and his research efforts and attention to detail are used to good advantage in recounting both the fictional and the factual aspects of the Deadwood story. It all feels right.  If it didn't happen this way, it sure could have.

Who knew a history lesson could be so much fun?
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