Thursday, April 28, 2005

Pete Dexter's Deadwood, Round 2

Publicly pronouncing your judgment on a book before you've finished it - if there's a faster way to look like a horse's ass, I'm sure I'll discover it soon enough. In my original review of Pete Dexter's Deadwood, I set up Wild Bill Hicock as the avenging angel, brought in to set right the scales of the Wild West. Unfortunately, he met his historic end just 12 pages after I made my prognostication, and there were 200 more to go.

Dexter's Deadwood pulled me in, completely. Had I encountered another scene like the one I complained about, I might well have tossed it aside. But I suppose the benefit of being shocked and appalled so early in the book is that, so long as it doesn't result in a relapse of mental illness, the experience braces and compells the reader forward. I wanted to see justice done, but the true virtue of Dexter's prose was such that my concerns of vengeance were eventually secondary: I wanted to see what became of Charley Utter, Calamity Jane, and several other hapless, feckless characters who'd been presented to me in their filth and finery.

Calamity Jane: Dexter gives us a woman whose presence is nothing like the tough, beguiling (and recommendably sexy) character we see in Wild Bill's Ellen Barkin. Dexter's Calamity Jane is grotesque and pitiable - and the fact that she amounts to the latter is a testament to Dexter's skills as a novellist. Her appearance is as compelling and revolting as any street-person's (pretty much the condition of every frontier person we meet), but Dexter is careful to buttress her legendary presence with a perceived reality. Unlike Wild Bill.

Wild Bill Hickock's presence is immediate, larger-than-life (and yet shabby enough to be true), and then removed physically from the narrative. The rest of the novel lists and haws to recover from the loss, and we gradually discover the character of the people who surrounded him. Hickock's geographically distant wife, Agnes Lake, a gymnast and high-wire walker, doesn't enter Deadwood until the last third of the book. In her silent ruminations, we quickly see why Bill was such a beguiling presence for her, while he remained the maddening, self-obsessed celebrity that staggered drunkenly toward his absurdly glorified death. Everyone in the novel, it seems, has to recover.

Agnes speaks of falling from the tight-rope: "When you fall," she said, "the thing that presses to you is the newness. It's a new world, and nothing from the other world can save you. You're helpless again, like a baby, scared of loud noises, and you don't know what's serious and what isn't, because you don't know what it means." That sense of shock, followed by an inconceivable, yet incomplete recovery, is the engine that drives the book.

An excellent read. However, I still remain appalled at the early, horrific vision Dexter painted. And I'm happy to see, in an odd bit of coincidence, that Nick Hornby was similarly non-plussed with Dexter's Train. To quote Hornby (from the highly recommended The Polysyllabic Spree): "But in the nipple-slicing incident in Train, I thought I could detect Dexter's thumb on the scale, to use a brilliant Martin Amis phrase from elsewhere in Experience. It seemed to me poor Norah lost her nipple through a world-view, rather than through a narrative inevitability..."

Yeah. What he said.


DarkoV said...

As is usual, your book and cd reviews end up adding another notch on my "To Read, to do, perchance to rest" list. I'd tried a go at Dexter's "Paris Trout" a while back. The bleakness was a bit much to deal with at that time. While well-written, his dark and realistic vision coupled with a lack of even a pulse of humor did me in and I never finished.
But, if you say so, I'll give "Deadwood" a shot. NPI.

Whisky Prajer said...

I never read "Paris Trout". I rented the movie once, and watched about 50 minutes before deciding I didn't want to finish. Dexter is one of those authors who, if you've had a rough go with him once, probably won't win you over the second time around, either. Even though I finally enjoyed "Deadwood", that first shock was so unwelcome, I very much doubt I'll bother with Dexter again. Hornby really liked "The Paperboy" though, so perhaps that's the exception?