Or why you should read Deadwood
by Pete Dexter
Deadwood is a comic about the old west. It tells the story of Deadwood, South Dakota, a rough town of prospectors and those that cater to the needs and vices of prospectors. The story, while fictional in detail, brings to life real people from the town of Deadwood like legendary gunfighter Wild Bill Hickock, his far-travelling friend Charlie Utter, scout Calamity Jane Canary, Chinese prostitute Ci'an "The China Doll", and circus performer Agnes Lake. The novel follows the development of the town and features stories of infamy like the assassination of Wild Bill and The China Doll. It is a novel that promises to be a quintessential Western novel.
Deadwood is an interesting beast. It definitely starts as a fun Western romp about legendary gun fighters in one of the most famous Western towns. There is gold in them hills and gun play, rasstlin' and peeders, whores and gleeful, period appropriate racism and misogyny. All joshing good fun, boys will be boys nostalgia: the very essence, I think, of the West in our cultural imagination. But then the novel starts to complicate these notions, and actually places a lens on the less nostalgic aspects of the West, drawing out the squalor, poverty, disease of The West amongst the romance and adventure. I was especially impressed with the way the novel breathed life into legends of the West and humanized their more flawed aspects. Like, Wild Bill Hickok was a gunfighter and adventurer, but he was also an alcoholic with serious health problems. Or Calamity Jane, a woman I'm used to seeing portrayed as a beautiful, force of nature, who was in reality a deeply troubled, homely woman with a brave and independent spirit. The way the novel takes all of these elements and brings them to life really works around the theme that the idea, the romantic notion, of a thing rarely holds up to close scrutiny; that real life is always filled with a layer of granular banality and suffering that doesn't survive the transcription into legend. Which is pretty cool stuff.
I really enjoyed Deadwood, but I think it's kind of an odd novel to recommend. If you wanted to read a roaring, Western adventure, I'm not sure this is the right book for you. Likewise, if you wanted a big, thought provoking piece of period literary fiction, I'm not sure the novel is exactly that either. It's kind of stuck in between being a genre romp and a work of provocative historical fiction, which I'd say is part of the magic of it, so I guess I'd say if you were looking for that experience this is the book for you. I mean, it is also a devilishly well written novel with some of the deepest written characters I have experienced, and if you want to read some fantastic character work Deadwood would be a great choice. I think it is likely you will enjoy it.
Although, if you have an understandable strong aversion to racism, misogyny, and generally socially problematic themes and situations, brace yourself. Deadwood will be rough going before it starts to do interesting, complicating things with these elements. Depending on your disposition, it may be a deal breaker.