Only David Milch could have transformed St. Paul and the cross into Deadwood and the South Dakota gold rush.
Milch, famed TV producer and writer, details that shift in his entertaining, self-absorbed memoir "Life's Work."
Although Milch finished the book with the aid of his daughters while battling the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease, "Life's Work" gives a full account of his troubled childhood, heroin and gambling addiction, Yale education and unlikely TV success.
The change from Christianity and the Roman Empire to gold and the American West is not that surprising coming from a writer who taught a course at Yale titled "Strategies of Indirection in Fiction."
Noted poet and critic William Logan in an article in the current New Criterion recalls taking the course, presenting a vivid portrait of Milch, an inveterate gambler on football games and horse racing and a superb writing teacher.
Milch in his memoir looks back on his career as a rebellious Yale undergraduate. Although seriously addicted to heroin and alcohol, and frequently in trouble with local law enforcement, Milch enjoyed a warm relationship with Yale professor, novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren.
Warren, as Milch fondly remembers, gave special attention to Milch's work, praising his novel in progress as containing the best dialogue that one of his students had ever written. Warren treated Milch as a wayward son, inviting him to visit his home and giving him career advice.
Milch also built a close relationship with the famed Yale critic R.W. B. Lewis, assisting him with his research on Lewis' Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Edith Wharton. All the while, Milch was searching for drugs and betting on horses and sports, while struggling to finish the novel praised by Warren.
The book looks back on Milch's abusive, reckless father, a surgeon also addicted to gambling who treated gangsters to pay off debts. Milch also was sexually abused as a young boy by a camp counselor. He used his chilhood traumas as material for his TV shows.
After Yale, Milch received a chance opportunity to write for Steven Bochco's ground-breaking NBC police drama "Hill Street Blues." Milch and Bochco then collaborated on the controversial crime saga "NYPD Blue," a smash for the network while drawing fire from conservatives because of its violence and explicit sexuality. A few flashes of nudity shook the foundations of network TV.
TV's gain was literature's loss; Milch never finished his novel. Yet characters like Dennis Franz's alcoholic detective Andy Sipowich in "NYPD Blue" laid the foundation for HBO "quality TV" productions like "The Wire" and "The Sopranos."
With a wife and family, Milch entered rehab, leading to his fascination with St. Paul's conversion to Christianity, his evangelistic career and New Testament writings, and his martyrdom in Rome.
Milch pitched HBO a show based on Paul's establishing the church throughout the Roman empire, but the cable network already had a show on ancient Rome in the works.
Seeing gold as analogous to St. Paul's world-changing symbol of Jesus' cross, Milch instead sold HBO on the series"Deadwood," which explored the rough life in the South Dakota boom town where the precious metal was discovered in the 1870s. It was famous as the place where "Wild Bill" Hickock was murdered, the subject of a powerful "Deadwood" episode.
"Deadwood," known for its vulgar dialogue, shocking violence and striking characters, was one of HBO's most memorable shows although it only lasted three years. Despite battling Alzheimer's, Milch completed the show with a movie-length conclusion.
"Life's Work" while often disjointed and egocentric tells a compelling story of redemption. After all of his destructive behavior, Milch achieves grace.