The star of Pete Dexter's book is not Wild Bill Hickock, or even Calamity Jane, but Charley Utter, Wild Bill's friend and partner towards the end of his life. It is through Charley we experience the events of the novel, the vast majority of which are based on real lives and actual events. Calamity Jane Cannery is real, as is China Doll the Chinese whore, and Bill's wife Agnes Lake, Mrs Langrishe the actress, Captain Jack Crawford and Wild Bill's assassin Jack McCall. Sheriff Seth Bullock and his business partner Solomon Star are real as are the Methodist Minister Henry Hiram Winston Smith and Pink Buford and his fighting bulldog. All of the characters bar one (a younger brother of Charley's wife) were in Deadwood at the time. Dexter's original research has been prodigious, but Dexter's real talent lies in what he has made of the facts. He has brought them alive on the page in a feat of marvellous creative imagination. Forget all the cowboy and Indian stuff - this is a story about real people doing real things in a time when it really was a struggle just to survive.
This is a tremendous book, packed with action from beginning to end and replete with a deeply realistic flavour of the times. There were still Indians in the Black Hills in 1876, when this novel begins, and Deadwood was a town of two halves - the respectable quarter and the low dives and whorehouses, along with prospecting miners, muleteers and Chinese labourers. The novel takes real incidents and fleshes them out with names and characters from the newspapers and record books of the times, giving their lives colour, energy and wild-west grit, blood and bones. It's a wonderful read from Pete Dexter, winner of America's National Book Award for Fiction for his earlier book, Paris Trout
. Bleak, fatalistic, riotously funny, deeply engaging and poignantly unforgettable.