Friday, April 22, 2005

Pete Dexter's Deadwood: The Western's Tradition of Inspired Contrariness

These last few days I've been reading Pete Dexter's western, Deadwood. I lucked across it in a used bookstore some weeks back, and picked it up because I'd heard it was the novel Walter Hill adapted in Wild Bill. I haven't seen that movie in years, but I enjoyed it enough to remember it and muse on Hill's original material, so, four dollars later....

It didn't dawn on me until several pages in that this is also the novel on which the HBO series is based. Like nearly everything HBO touches, Deadwood is being admired, fawned over, and greatly talked about. While I haven't yet seen the show, I've read some of the chatter, and my hunch is the series writers have taken Dexter's material and run with it in a very different direction than he ever considered (Hill certainly did). It's interesting that one book could inspire two very divergent creative visions. Hill meditates on the dark difficulties a man inherits when he becomes mythical, and throws in a little father/son Freudery. The HBO series seems to explore much broader terrain: the economics of human congress.

It's also remarkable that Dexter's book inspires anything at all, because it's nearly inspired me to put it down. I was given warning in the early pages that there was likely to be trouble: a secondary tier of characters revels in a grimy bit of cruelty. I thought, "Fine. The western frontier could bring out some shoddy behavior, it's true." 100 pages later, the same hapless dolt is subjected to another round, by the same villain, in a scene of brutality I really didn't need to read. If Dexter's principals were a shade less compelling, the book would now be sitting in my box of trade-ins.

What is it about the western that inspires contemporary writers to pull out the stops and wallop the reader? The master of this approach is Cormac McCarthy, who can't seem to stitch together the tiniest bit of subplot without embroidering it with blood and guts. I cut McCarthy a mile of slack, though, because his grotesque prose is such a treat. He wants to be the Peckinpah of the page, bellowing drunken stanzas, demanding for God to account. And like old Sam, he's developed a style that delivers.

Still, McCarthy's instincts are curious. If you were to read, say, Louis L'Amour, then jump to Cormac McCarthy, you might almost think McCarthy is being "corrective," except he's obviously not. He's being over-corrective. Draw a line of scale, and put LL at the one end, and MM on the other, because these are the two extremes in the western. And Pete Dexter, though he wobbles a bit, clearly wants to move his chair closer to McCarthy.

Most writers do, even a best-seller like Larry McMurtry. McMurtry claimed surprise when his Lonesome Dove characters were enlisted against his wishes to do a weekly TV show, after the novel had been (successfully) adapted as a mini-series. He said his novel was trying to remove the shine from the myth, not supply the next "Gunsmoke", but then he went on to pen a few more Lonesome Dove books. The man doth protest. Even if he'd left Gus and Call alone, his claim was inherently spurious. No writer takes on the western to de-mythologize; they do it because, in their heart of hearts, they worry that writing is for wusses, and hope a little of the western's mythological fairy-dust will rub off on them. If you doubt this, go ahead and name the first woman western novelist that comes to mind.

If anything, the impulse is to re-mythologize. Even with his fetish for gruesomeness, Dexter isn't challenging any of the western's traditional elements - he's relying on them. Dexter's shock-value seems intended to provoke two reactions from the reader: 1) horror at the terrible fate of this secondary character; 2) a thirst for vengeance, emphasizing the cool, heroic necessity of drunken killers like Wild Bill Hickock. Despite my distaste at this narrative overindulgence, it's a line of reasoning that's drawn me in. Dexter can sit back, arms crossed with satisfaction and declare, "See? The boat still floats!" Sure, Pete, I'm still reading - for now.

Still, the testosterone is just a little too rich, and I wonder if the HBO series isn't a success because its writers have adroitly recognized just that. If I read the critics rightly, they seem to think it's Little House On The Prairie, with balls. And that sounds like a concept I could get into.

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