Monday, 10 September 2012

Wild Bill and the Wild West: Demythologizing

I envy the skill of a writer who can succumb to his neologism, “peeder,” over 55 times (I started counting for fun on page 66 after a plethora of “peeders” had aroused my envy) without mucking up a luminous novel.

“Peeder” is Deadwood’s idiolect for “dick.” When I asked Pete if the term was a euphemism, like Norman Mailer’s “fug” in The Naked and the Dead, he deadpanned: “How would you like to grow up in South Dakota with the first name, Peter?”

Childhood onomastic traumas aside, Dexter’s second novel is a brilliant addition to the growing South Dakota literary tradition of demythologizing its frontier past. Dexter greatly admires septuagenarian Frederick Manfred’s Buckskin Man tales, a pentalogy that includes King of Spades, about Black Hills justice in 1876—also the starting date of Deadwood.

Dexter here explores the ambiguities of Wild Bill Hickok’s last days. Going blind, his “peeder” messed up by syphilis, “wild” Bill puzzles over how to come to terms with the contradictions of being one of America’s first media celebrities.

Harper’s Weekly (a kind of post-Civil War Ur-People magazine) is stroking the boredoms of urbane America’s East with confected tales of Hickok’s charisma. But Bill’s no Clint Eastwood, eager to have his day made with a dollop of macho manliness. He’s more worried about whether he’s infected his bride, Agnes Lake, a circus trapeze artist he’s just married in Cheyenne. She’s back in St. Louis, waiting out Hickok and his pal Charley Utter’s schemes to hit it rich in Deadwood, which is in the frenzy of a gold strike.

And there’s Calamity Jane, feeding herself on the fantasy that she is Wild Bill’s wife, breaking her bones riding bulls on the main street of Rapid City and “retiring” into a self-appointed role as the Florence Nightingale of the deadly frontier smallpox epidemics (when she wasn’t “charging the Army boys a dollar a turn, half the regular rate”—all-around public servant.)

When we first meet Jane, it is the morning after she has bestowed her questionable favors on bountyman Boone May, stuck in town because he’s trying to sell cut-rate the head of Frank Towles—so May won’t have to go all the way to Cheyenne to collect the bounty. This is what he saw, the morning after:

“Her skin was pale and bruised and old. She was a big-boned girl, but fat. Spindly legs, soft-looking arms, no chest to her at all. He had never seen a woman black and blue so many different places. It looked like they’d dragged her all the way from Chicago. And she was as ripe as live body gets.”

A visual calamity, of world-class proportions. When Boone returns from a gulp of fresh air, he counsels Jane to take a bath. Jane is not impressed, “’I give it a bath once,’ she said, pulling the blanket back over her body, ‘and a Cheyenne peeder come floating out.’” When Boone searches the tent for Towles’ head, he has trouble locating it because Jane has been using it for a pillow overnight.

Those were grotesque days out in the Black Hills, before Mount Rushmore, and Dexter is deft at weaving a tapestry of chaos that is almost too funny to be true.

Yet he collected the basic material in ten days at the Carnegie Library in Deadwood, the best archive, he says, next to the University of Nebraska for data on the region’s gory, “glory” days. Dexter’s been fascinated by talk about Deadwood ever since he grew up in Sioux Falls and Vermillion in the 1950s; he finally got to take a good look when he was 18, in 1961, at the annual “Days of 76,” a blowout he says makes the student migrations to Fort Lauderdale look like Sunday school picnics.

Marjorie Pontius, the Deadwood librarian, first showed him what amounted to a civic guest register, a chronological listing of how individuals met their deaths in Deadwood in its wide-open mining days. The local papers were, so to say, gold mines on the quality of life and death in early Deadwood. Dexter’s SuperCreep, one Captain Jack Crawford, is straight out of the old yellowed files. Don Quixote Dexter is proud to let such a phony “paper-collar” hoist himself on his own windmill with racist doggerel about pacifying Indians:

            They talk about peace with the demons,
            By feeding and clothing them well,
            I’d as soon think an angel from heaven
            Would reign with contentment in hell.
            And some day these Quakers will answer
            Before the great Judge of all
            For the death of daring young Custer
            And the boys that around him did fall…

Pete has found a Midas formula for turning dross into the gold of comic invention. Chinese call girls joined Mexes and injuns in the gold-prospectors’ trinity of contempt. The section “China Doll” recounts the mid-life crisis of Solomon Star, the sheriff’s partner in a plan to bring stability to Deadwood through the town brickworks.

Star’s feeble efforts to buy the radiant Chinese girl (after shedding a wife in Bismarck) set in train a sequence of violent events that culminate in a conflagration that destroys much of Deadwood and prompts Charley to “move up” to Lead, where his beddie, Lurline Monti Verdi, fronts as madam for Lurline’s House of Distinction.

The characters and events Dexter has culled from Deadwood’s Carnegie Library are obviously much closer to real history than the dizzily upbeat Disneyland images of the West most of our compatriots unencumber their minds with.

Yet it’s more than a mock. Charley and Agnes come together in a touchingly decent “mending hearts” club as they ease the grief of losing Wild Bill to an assassin’s bullet.

I asked Dexter who Dorothy and William Selz of Vermillion, S.D., were (he dedicates the novel to them): “She was my American lit professor at the University of South Dakota. She and her husband taught me the most important things I’ve ever learned—to be patient, kind and truthful—not in their courses, exactly, but in listening to me when I was one wild young son of a bitch.”

Wild Bill and Charley (and Agnes in a postscript sort of way) managed to remain patient, kind and truthful in the Deadwood of 1876. In that maelstrom of marauding and malarkey, they kept civilized values alive. A feat.

That’s what Wild Bill means, Dexter is saying: maintaining civilized values amidst the self-aggrandizing noises of the Captain Jack Crawfords, those paper-collars on their perennial cons.

That’s where this “non-fiction” novel connects with Dexter’s bread-and-butter work as a thrice-a-week columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. He says he used to prowl around looking for “original stories” to illuminate the contradictions of life in the big city. Lately, he has retreated to a more “reactive” kind of commentary, keeping tabs on big figures like Mayor Wilson Goode and his Osage brush with immortality, or the sheriff’s office hack who devised a scam by working both sides of the forced tax-delinquent sale of houses.

Dexter’s first novel, God’s Pocket (Random House, 1983), about crime, metro-journalism and tensions between Philly’s ethnic neighborhoods, didn’t do too well—10,000 copies, more or less, condemned to a limbo of first-novel brush-off by the faint praise of a back-pages review in the New York Times. One hopes better things for Deadwood, a much richer, more resonant work.

Pete’s already at work on his third novel, down on his six-acre spread overlooking the Chesapeake Bay near Earleville, Md. (pop. 40). It’s set in Milledgeville, Georgia, where he lived between the ages of six and eleven—a venue already given a certain magic as the home-place of another of his favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor.

From Welcomat: After Dark, April 23, 1986

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