Rating: 3 Stars
First of all, I have to say that this isn’t a fair review. It’s actually a perfectly fine novel, probably worthy of a higher rating. It’s just that I can’t stop comparing it to the television series Deadwood, in which there really is no comparison.
First, let’s talk about the book. This is the story of the early founding of Deadwood. The first part focuses on Wild Bill Hickok and Colorado Charlie Utter. They are best friends. Hickok is a legendary figure but is down on his luck and is not in good health. Utter does his best to keep his friend out of trouble.
This is hard to do because he is Wild Bill and everyone in the town wants a piece of him. They want to gamble with him. They want to drink with him. They want to swap stories with him. When Charlie leaves him alone to run an errand, Hickok is murdered. Charlie has to come back to bury him and to send condolences to his widow.
Hickok has an air of resigned fatalism. He seems to sense that Deadwood is going to be his last stop. He has some kind of urinary tract infection and his vision is slowly going (never a good thing for a marksman). With his weary detachment, he simply endures.
Utter is active, clever and sardonic. He has a wry quip for every occasion. Together, Utter and Hickok clearly form a strong bond.
The sections after Hickok’s death are not as strongly drawn. There’s an odd section where Utter, in his grief, consorts with a masochistic prostitute while a Chinese prostitute plots his demise. There’s another section where Agnes, Hickok’s newly minted widow, comes to visit Deadwood. Finally, there’s a section that focuses on Calamity Jane, the always drunk, slightly crazed, frontier woman that finds her true calling nursing victims of smallpox. She truly thinks that she has a gift of God and apparently does have some kind of immunity to the disease. However, mysteriously enough, even though she’s immune, usually within two weeks of her arrival into a town a smallpox epidemic always seems to erupt.
These sections are fine, but they pale to the Utter / Hickok section and at times, it wasn’t really clear what the purpose they were serving.
Now, contrast that to the HBO series. The similarities are that both capture Utter’s sardonic wit and Hickok’s weary acceptance of his fame and his fate. In both, their friendship is clear and strong.
However, the other characters in the series are just so much more richly drawn. Al Swearingen, who in the novel is a pretty weak, cowardly pimp, is a dark force of malignancy in the series. Seth Bullock, here a pretty straightforward law and order sheriff, is a grimly repressed man of compressed rage in the series. E.B. Farnum was a throwaway character in the novel but is fully formed in all of his toady, sniveling glory in the series. And so on…
And the language in the series! Rumor is it that writers wrote scripts for the series, turned them into Milch, and then Milch completely rewrote the dialog. I can believe it because the dialog, with its mixture of raucous crudity and Shakespearean eloquence, is the greatest that I’ve witnessed in, well, any non-Shakespearean play. It’s certainly the only television series that I’ve ever watched where occasionally I’d get so caught up in the beauty of the dialog that I’d lose track of the plot.
I know that it’s not fair. The novel was written twenty years before the series. The novel is 350 pages while the series is 36 hour long episodes. I get that. It’s just that with the series in my head, the novel just seemed like a pale reflection.