DEADWOOD by Pete Dexter
Kirkus Star

DEADWOOD

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Dexter's first novel (God's Pocket, 1984) was set in a working-class neighborhood of modern Philadelphia. Here, we have the story of the last days of Wild Bill Hickok--and of his best friend Charley Utter; and of Calamity Jane Cannary; and of a dozen gold- or whiskey-dazed settlers of Deadwood, North Dakota, in the Black Hills, where all the book's (historically accurate) characters combine in the weeks before Wild Bill's death by assassination and (a few months later) the town's razing by arson. It is a dazzling novel--a brilliant achievement of tone, scale, pace, mood, character and the reimagining of an American myth until it has the force of fate. And fate is what the book is about. As it opens, Wild Bill, drunk and half blind from syphilis but still the master of all he meets, approaches Deadwood with a premonition: he will die here. A few weeks later--through the clownish machinations of a local headhunter--he is shot in the back by a madman named Jack McCall, who has never fired a gun before. Dexter, through Charley, is interested in why Hickok decided to die, and to die then and in Deadwood. His answer--an ironic answer having to do with conundrums of character and changing times in the American West--draws us through the bizarre and fascinating life stories of McCall, a feeble alcoholic whose only accomplishment has been a queer sympathy with cats; Calamity Jane, ugly, grotesque (""He thought that was mold growing in the creases of her neck""), who is a combination Typhoid Mary and Florence Nightingale of smallpox in the West; the Bottle Fiend; the China Doll; the town's whores and whoremasters and its sin-stunned Methodist preacher, whose boy disciple, when the preacher is killed, becomes a sort of babbling, inadvertent prophet of ""civilizing"" forces that will alter the Dakota territory forever before Charley himself dies--in Panama, during the building of the canal in 1912. Like Little Big Matt and Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, Deadwood is epic in its intentions, and it fulfills them with grace, wit, a sure pace and an unflagging sense of the dramatic and ironic. Wild Bill, Charley and the novel's other characters are among the best company you're likely to find this spring.

Pub Date: April 11th, 1986
ISBN: 1400079713
Publisher: Random House