Black as the Devil’s Dreams: Thoughts on Place in Pete Dexter’s Deadwood

by Matthew McEver

Attributed to Chief Seattle is this quote: “(The white man) is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on… he treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.”

Writers like to talk about sense of place, but we’re often guilty of using place only to decorate the page, to point to our mastery of the language, rather than using place to bear witness to greater truths about human beings. We take from the land what we need, and we move on. Thankfully, there are writers who have used place in order to say something about human behavior.  

The sense of place in Pete Dexter’s novel Deadwood is an excellent example. Deadwood is representative of the literature of the American West, but it is a subversive Western–a Western that refuses to champion rugged individualism and progress, as many Westerns have done. Deadwood, South Dakota was an illegal settlement in Lakota territory, and the strong sense of place in Deadwood reminds us that people destroy one another over land. Characters in the novel are hyperbolically violent and wicked because ownership of land has historically been tied to human violence and wickedness.

Dexter refuses to exalt Manifest Destiny. Instead, he caricatures westward expansion by blending comedy and horror, seamlessly. The novel’s characters are so morally deteriorated that nothing phases them. They engage in droll, flippant commentary in response to gun violence and, in one instance, rape. The role of dark humor in Deadwood is to undermine the “heroism” and intrepidness of those who displaced the Lakota by amplifying their depravity, suggesting that the legacy of American frontier expansion is actually that of amoral opportunism.

The novel opens with a parody of the journey westward, the archetypical passage to Eden, as a caravan heads for Deadwood. Historically, the Black Hills Gold Rush instigated the settlement and development of Deadwood, but here and throughout the novel, Dexter downplays the economic impetus. The impulse driving this journey is not as much greed as it is debauchery. The caravan consists of twenty-eight wagons, but “most of them are full of whores” (6). Furthermore, Dexter’s use of setting alerts us to the spiritual condition of the people when he describes the hills as being “black as the devil’s dreams” (Ibid). Dexter is turning the journey-of-progress motif on its head. These characters long for Deadwood not because it promises prosperity or renewal, but because it will cater to their base desires. Deadwood is not Eden, but Sodom.

Dexter undermines the notion of westward expansion as a higher calling by suggesting that Manifest Destiny brings out the worst in people. Virtually all characters in Deadwood are in varying degrees of downward trajectory, a moral equivalent of reverse-Darwinism. The town is full of violence, yet the characters are so desensitized as to shrug it off, treating violence as mundane. Saloons and hotels have bullet holes in the ceilings. One cartoonish scene involves Handsome Banjo Dick Brown who, while onstage, narrowly escapes the throw of an axe from a cuckolded husband, manages to return fire—hitting the axe-man with five bullets—and resumes his song. Such pastiche gains full impact when offset against the somber tone of characters detailing Indian violence, particularly the “terrible mutilations” suffered by Custer’s army (26). Characters speak of Custer’s death almost with reverence. The discrepancies, the comic violence offset against gruesomely somber violence, suggests that only Indian violence is horrible—or real for that matter, but White violence is all in fun.

Dexter could have offered lyrical descriptions of the landscape with no purpose beyond decorating the page, calling attention to how well he writes about place. But place in this novel serves a higher purpose. Place in Deadwood tells us about the base desires of the characters, tells us something about our commodification of land.

The lawless character of the town in the novel underscores the inherent amorality of Lakota displacement in the name of progress. And because Dexter creates tension between the real and the imagined, between fiction and history, he seemingly mocks biased history, history told by those who conquered. By placing the horrors of history and the amorality of frontier opportunism and violence alongside comic absurdity, Dexter defies a myth that serves the cause of American hubris.

 

Dexter, Pete. Deadwood. New York: Random House, 1986. 

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