November 23, 2022

“Deadwood” Author David Milch Tells His Story

By Stuart Mitchner

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

—Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)

David Milch’s memoir Life’s Work  (Random House $28) is a tour de force pulled together against all odds; as a work of literary art it’s worthy of comparison with modern American classics like Frank Conroy’s Stop Time, Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Patti Smith’s Just Kids and M-Train, and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Potential readers, however, are met with a blurb in bold type presenting “a profound memoir from a brilliant mind taking stock as Alzheimer’s loosens his hold on his own past.” As if to make up for the pairing of a flat phrase like “taking stock” with the notion that Milch is losing his hold on his past, the jacket copy closes with a line that sings — “a revelatory memoir from a great American writer in what may be his final dispatch to us all.

The catch is that the great writer’s magnum opus was actually a rhetorically rich, fabulously profane American classic called Deadwood, which was not only written but spoken, staged, choreographed, and constructed with contributions from numerous others, only to be shut down after three seasons by HBO, which had once given Milch the game-changing freedom to take language where networks and sponsors usually fear to tread.

In Life’s Work, Milch describes how his thrust toward “ever more extreme varieties of language in their profanity or intricacy or strangeness” has been “to show, through the form of dialogue, the variety and ultimately the joy of the energy that’s given to us all as humans.” For Milch “the joy of the energy” drives both the story of his extraordinary life and his sweeping vision of community in a lawless American mining town in 1876.

“The Deepest Gift”

Although Milch’s prologue to Life’s Work begins in an Alzheimer’s no-man’s-land (“I’m on a boat sailing to some island where I don’t know anybody. A boat someone is operating, and we aren’t in touch”), he returns to family and community in the book’s closing pages: “I still hear voices. I still tell stories. There is the voice in my wife’s head and the ones in my children’s heads. The deepest gift I think an individual can experience is to accept himself as part of a larger living thing, and that’s what we are as a family.”

“They Were Alive”

Although the memoir is dedicated to Milch’s late brother Bob, the epigraph comes from “Tell Me a Story,” a poem by his surrogate father and literary guiding light at Yale, the novelist, poet, and critic Robert Penn Warren, one of mid-20th-century America’s most distinguished men of letters. It was while helping Warren assemble an anthology (American Literature: The Makers and the Making) that Milch began to share his mentor’s belief in the immediacy of the tradition: “They were alive and their work was alive and he was sitting with them. That was the kind of immediacy his conversation with their work generated.” They meaning, among illustrious others, Melville, Twain, and the James family (Alice, William, and Henry), the subject of Milch’s first screenplay, which he and the anthology’s co-editor R.W.B. Lewis were pitching to the National Endowment and PBS when the phone rang with the news that Milch’s father had killed himself — and, in effect, the screenplay. His father’s last request, according to Milch, was “Don’t tell David until he’s done with his pitch.”

Intimations of Huck

Addressed as “Mr. Warren” throughout Life’s Work, Milch’s second father eventually learned that Elmer Milch lived a double life — an esteemed surgeon who was a compulsive gambler and an alcoholic. As Milch writes: “My brother was going to be a doctor, he had been selected for that, I had been selected to be the bum. A version of my dad separated into each of us” and “when I started to exhibit symptoms of degeneracy, it pleased my dad.”

What did Warren make of his conflicted star student? For Milch “using drugs was a way to organize and structure a day. I loved heroin. I loved checking out…. The thing with acid was that it was a mixed message. You were loaded and you were transcendent, but with dope you were just loaded, which is all I ever wanted to be.” My guess is that Warren saw in Milch something comparable to Huck Finn’s visceral resistance to “being civilized,” and that at some point in their relationship, they talked about the scene in which Huck’s drunken “Pap” goes after him with a knife. While I don’t mean to compare the accomplished surgeon with the psychotic racist who fathered Huck, Milch must have been tempted to share with his surrogate father anecdotes about his actual father’s other life, such as the “sheer alcoholic blizzard” that blitzed David’s graduation weekend at Yale (“He would get meaner or nicer on the bottle depending on which way the wind blew”).

Moving in Patterns

It was while reading Milch’s account of the time his father introduced 5-year-old David to race track betting that I first began thinking of Huck. The paragraph that illuminated the connection for me begins, “When I was eight years old, I stole my first booze. There was always plenty of it in the house. I had compulsions I didn’t know what to do with.” For one, he became convinced that the grandfather he had been brought up to kiss as he lay in the coffin “used to take one step from his grave every night, and when he finally got to where I was, I would die. So I would keep him busy. I’d move in patterns.” This anecdote brought to mind Twain’s treatment of Huck’s haunted boyhood, his morbid thoughts (no wonder, when your knife-wielding father calls you “the angel of death”). As for “moving patterns,” Milch makes his most consequential career move when, like Huck, he “lights out for the Territory.”

Sipowicz and Swearengen

Before heading for Deadwood, Milch crafted an urban epic called NYPD Blue, with help from co-author Steven Bochco and retired NYPD officer Bill Clark. Discussing his concept of the show’s central figure, police detective Andy Sipowicz, Milch quotes Mark Twain on the notion that any character he created “he was meeting for the second time because he met them first on the river.” One of the characters met “for the second time” was Milch’s father, whose explosiveness was transferred to Sipowicz.

When Milch refers to Sipowicz as “in many ways a frightening character” made less frightening by “his idiosyncratic use of language and the islands of gentleness we see in him,” he could be talking about Deadwood’s eloquently profane antihero Al Swearengen. And just as another key influence on the shaping of Sipowicz was Dennis Franz, the actor who played him for 12 seasons, the same could be said of Ian McShane, the British actor whose epic portrayal of the cut-throat saloon owner is one of the glories of Deadwood.

Deadwood and Moby Dick

As much as I’ve admired Deadwood through the years, having seen all three seasons three times and the 2019 film twice, the notion that the show may be to series television what Melville’s Moby Dick is to American literature had never occurred to me until I read Life’s Work. If I’m seeing what Milch does with Swearengen and Deadwood as analogous to what Melville does with Ahab and Moby Dick, it’s probably because “Mr. Warren” was able to help Milch experience  the great American writers as if they “were alive and their work was alive and he was sitting with them.” After describing his satisfaction with the pilot episode, Milch says “it felt worthy of Mr. Warren watching. He wasn’t there but it felt worthy.”

Mr. Warren’s Poetry

Early in Life’s Work, Milch writes: “Prior to Mr. Warren’s teachings, I thought of the whole idea of poetry as unmanly. My dad had a profoundly skeptical attitude in that regard. That was one of the gifts Mr. Warren gave me … the recognition of poetry as not only honorable but manly. And it was as if an entire shell fell away…. And Mr. Warren’s unconflicted embracing of all of those emotional states was such a liberation.”

In a May 27, 2019 New Yorker article, “David Milch’s Third Act,” when Mark Singer asks him whether Alzheimer’s “had given anything in return,” Milch speaks of “a continuous sense of urgency … an acute sense of time’s passage.” His suggestion “that time is ultimately the subject of every story” leads to a quote from Warren’s poem “Tell Me a Story,” lines that Milch has cited over the years “in classrooms, writers’ rooms, personal encounters, lectures, and interviews” and that now serve as an epigraph to the story of his life:

Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.