It's always sad when a writer's untimely death motivates you to find that unread book and, a day late as it were, finally read it. Such was the case for me recently with Richard Matheson, who was better known as an sf writer, or indeed a screenwriter, but who produced a number of westerns that share a clean prose, clear storyline, firm narrative drive, and deft characterisation. The Memoirs Of Wild Bill Hickok is no exception, but it's also a revisionist version of gunfighter myth, a sort of Little Big Man focussed in on just one man.
The excellent conceit of the novel is that it is indeed written by James Butler Hickok himself, and he is no gunfighter, much less a hero. In fact, he starts a sensitive soul, and grows into someone who's more coward than anything else; even his name is acquired through accident and misunderstanding. Fate seems to have a different path for Hickok that the one he might imagine, and in this case, fate deals him tough cards—not least his famous, fatal, aces and eights.
What makes the book most effective is that Hickok's own writing begins to follow the rough-edged frontier talk he has borrowed from the dime novels who've created his legend; the sensitive man proud of being well-read, winds up writing as if he really were the hero he's been written to be, and in that chasm, in that conflict between the man and myth, lies the story. It's fiction as life, and the scenes of Hickok on the stage have a true discomfort, even for the reader. And Bill finds his solace, as he did when he was a boy, in women, or failing that, as a man, in the bottle.
It seems a simple tale on the surface, but it's Matheson's version of Hickok's prose that gives this novel its edge, and makes it memorable. It reminds us of just how controlled, how spare, and how good Matheson was.
The Memoirs Of Wild Bill Hickok by Richard Matheson
Forge (Tom Doherty Associates) 1996, $6.99