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The creator of Deadwood and NYPD Blue reflects on his tumultuous life, driven by a nearly insatiable creative energy and a matching penchant for self-destruction. Life’s Work is a profound memoir from a brilliant mind taking stock as Alzheimer’s loosens his hold on his own past.
“This is David Milch’s farewell, and it will rock you.”—Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: NPR, Kirkus Reviews
“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.” So begins David Milch’s urgent accounting of his increasingly strange present and often painful past. From the start, Milch’s life seems destined to echo that of his father, a successful if drug-addicted surgeon. Almost every achievement is accompanied by an act of self-immolation, but the deepest sadnesses also contain moments of grace.
Betting on racehorses and stealing booze at eight years old, mentored by Robert Penn Warren and excoriated by Richard Yates at twenty-one, Milch never did anything by half. He got into Yale Law School only to be expelled for shooting out streetlights with a shotgun. He paused his studies at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to manufacture acid in Cuernavaca. He created and wrote some of the most lauded television series of all time, made a family, and pursued sobriety, then lost his fortune betting horses just as his father had taught him.
Like Milch’s best screenwriting, Life’s Work explores how chance encounters, self-deception, and luck shape the people we become, and wrestles with what it means to have felt and caused pain, even and especially with those we love, and how you keep living. It is both a master class on Milch’s unique creative process, and a distinctive, revelatory memoir from one of the great American writers, in what may be his final dispatch to us all.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Life's Work
My folks were married when my mom was twenty-two, young for sure. My dad was, relatively speaking for that day and age, senior, at thirty-four.
Mom was a small-town girl, grew up in Batavia, about forty miles outside of Buffalo. Very provincial. Her parents had a furniture store adjoining their house so my grandfather would just walk out one door and in another. The store’s still around. There were six children of whom she was the baby. She had four brothers and a sister. That was an identifiable dynamic—she was spoiled and they were all very protective of her. The boys were much less cosmopolitan than the girls. Batavia in those days, ten thousand people, wasn’t a city at all. There was that fierce parochialism that you get in a small town. They were defensive—sure, it’s a small town, but I’m big enough to beat your balls off. They were very close as a family unit.
My dad, and in turn my brother and I, came from a clannish background. It was a knock-around neighborhood my dad grew up in in Buffalo. Tough neighborhood, very much segregated by ethnic groups—Jews were all in one place, Italians in another. His mom, Esther, was the eldest of seven children, though sometimes when I tell this story I say ten children. My dad was an only child. His mom kept having miscarriages because she was diabetic. My dad weighed like sixteen pounds when he was born, too much sugar. Not too long after, Esther’s mother croaked—my dad’s grandmother. So Esther moved back into her parents’ house, and, depending upon how one interprets the data, possibly into her newly widowed father’s bed. I think his name was Jacob. The odd man out was her husband, Morris, my grandfather, who had moved into the house with them. Whatever was going on so radically disempowered him that he tried to kill himself by going over Niagara Falls. They have various impediments in place to keep one from accomplishing that feat. He thought he could beat them, but he couldn’t. One suspects it wasn’t much fun for my dad either.
His grandfather Jake, my great-grandfather, whose bed my dad’s mother, Esther, may or may not have been sharing, was not a nice man. Probably his most endearing characteristic was that he was a bootlegger. All the boys in the family—my dad’s uncles, my great-uncles—were enlisted one way or another to assist him. During Prohibition, what you never wanted to do was collar a really powerful man. What you wanted to do was collar a miserable Jewish prick, so the cops came to collar my great-grandfather Jake, and he said, “My son did it!” So one of my uncles had to leave town and ended up living on a houseboat in international waters. I think there was a warrant out for him. We’d visit on the docks and he’d stay on his boat. Another uncle started running a joint in Saratoga, the Piping Rock, a casino. When my dad was seventeen or so, he worked there for the summer as a busboy, and he loved it. But because my dad was the next generation, the edict was he had to go to college, so he couldn’t be involved in nefarious activities. Nobody was allowed to shoot pool with him. Nobody was allowed to do anything bad with him because he had to go to college. One day one of my uncles comes up to the pool hall, and my dad’s shooting pool with a guy. My uncle took the guy, threw him through a window, and broke his neck. He never played pool with my dad again. He never walked again.
What the people of the family said about my dad was, “Elmer can’t get involved in what we’re involved in.” So between that, and whatever the hell had gone on in that house, I think he experienced some sense of otherness, lost what might have been the natural environment for his childhood, or felt that he was being deprived of or cut off from the environment in which he grew up, even as he was growing up there, that he was in a house that was not his own. My dad became a doctor, a surgeon. He published papers. But clearly Saratoga and the racetrack were associated in his mind with a lot of unresolved stuff. And every August he would go back.
My mother used to say he was a small-town boy from a big city. My dad was a good catch. He was a Jewish doctor, older, what’s not to like? Besides the flagrant philandering? He was a hard player, drank a lot. He had residual consequences from a terrible car accident. Every three months for thirty, forty years he had to have dilatations, put a rod up his penis, used catheters and sounds to get the urine out.
I could make a number of choices in how I tell the story of my dad’s car accident. He was on an army base where he was a medic and flipped a truck. He was drunk, supposed to ship out the next day, and out to see a woman. The accident got him caught wrong by my mom. I was conceived when he was in the hospital after. I’ve told the story a lot of different ways. I’m not sure any of it is true.
Now the particulars of my condition make it quite literal that I don’t know anymore what parts of the story are true, and what are just parts of different stories I’ve told. But we’re all making choices in how we tell the story and one thing I would suggest is that what literally happened need not be overly determinative.
I was born in 1945. You may know it as a rather significant year in world history. In my experience it’s most important as the year I was born. And you wonder why baby boomers f***ed everything up.
My mother, Mollie, was content being a mother, but she had done very well in college, got a degree in education, and started to teach. It was a meaningful career for her. My mom lectured, then she became a political figure in Buffalo as head of the city’s board of education. They wanted her to run for mayor and my dad said no. I don’t know whether she had the temperament to go out and glad-hand the way you have to do. I think she would have, but she had to take care of him. My mom shaped what I was going to do and how I was going to do it, scholastically and all around. She was extremely high performing, always in the pages of our newspaper for her accomplishments. When she was head of the board of education she coined the phrase “It’s ten o’clock, do you know where your children are?” The irony being, of course, that she herself never did.
Dad always had a Cadillac, and if there was a rattle or something it would drive him crazy. We lived in fear and dread that the car would make any noise. I’ve wondered if he had some kind of bipolarity, but I never saw him manic. More unipolar, but not solely depressed. Compulsive. Some people defy diagnosis.
He refused to meet a new person and would come up with the most idiotic explanations of why I couldn’t bring a friend over: “No, no, no, no, no, that’s bullshit. I don’t need that shit. I don’t need it. No.”
Once a friend of mine fell and split his skull open. I had to bring him home so my dad could stitch him up, and then he wouldn’t let the kid leave.
“These are what we call Jewish forks and these are Jewish knives and this is Jewish food.”
The kid was baffled.
My dad wanted so much to be open but was so self-enclosed. Alcoholics in particular are like that, everything’s got to be exactly the same. Maybe one time out of four in a week my dad would get his oiler on and if he was in a particularly gaseous, effusive mood, he would open the doors to the heathen Gentile.
One year we’d been to Yom Kippur services at Kleinhans Music Hall. The temple population at that time was about two thousand and it would fill the harmonic hall. We had taken the car down early in the day so Dad would have a good parking spot and he could leave quickly. Then we took one cab home to wait, and another back in time for the start of the service. After it was over, we come out of the synagogue and the Caddy’s boxed in by an Imperial LeBaron. On Yom Kippur, when all your sins have just been forgiven, Dad reverses hard into the LeBaron—bang! Then he pulls up again, reverses—bang! Mom is hysterical. But we get out of the space eventually and he’s away before everybody else comes out and he can be held responsible. There’s always next Yom Kippur to deal with this one.
Rabbi Fink was the boss over at Beth Zion. When God spoke, he spoke through Joe Fink. There was just no question. Everybody in the community respected him. After a bar mitzvah, it was known that the rabbi would place his hands on your shoulders and impart some great wisdom. After mine, I just remember being profoundly disappointed. I can’t remember what he said, only the hole remains, but it’s still open and still able to generate dissatisfaction. “Thank you very much,” I managed. “See you at the reception.” It was right about then I understood that adults don’t know much either. By thirteen, I was already feeling pretty outside of most things, and you convince yourself that everyone else is inside.
David Milch graduated summa cum laude from Yale University, where he won the Tinker Prize. He earned a MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. He worked as a writing teacher and lecturer in English literature at Yale. During his teaching career, he assisted Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks in the writing of several college textbooks on literature. His poetry and fiction have been published in The Atlantic and Southern Review. In 1982, Milch wrote his first television script for Hill Street Blues. Among other credits, Milch created and wrote the shows NYPD Blue, John from Cincinnati, Luck, and Deadwood.