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, USA Today, 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.
Milch, a TV writer and producer best known for his work on NYPD Blue and Deadwood, delivers a warts-and-all memoir. Born in Buffalo in 1945, Milch didn't have it easy from the start: his prominent doctor father was also a gambler, alcoholic, and philanderer, and his mother was a driven educator who didn't always keep track of her own kids. Between the ages of six and 13, Milch was routinely sexually abused at summer camp, a trauma he kept secret for decades. He was expelled from Yale after he shot out the lights of a police car during an acid trip, but not before he became a protégé of poet Robert Penn Warren. Milch's big break came during the TV writers' strike of 1982 on Hill Street Blues—the show's producers had to take a chance on a screenwriter too new to have joined the Writers Guild—which paved the way for his later series of "shows known for profanity." Deadwood fans will relish the behind-the-scenes accounts of casting decisions and the series's origin story: the concept Milch first pitched, of a power struggle between cops in Rome, morphed into the morally complex western. But his professional success was marred by endemic self-sabotage in the form of erratic behavior and racking up millions in gambling debts. The circumstances of the memoir's creation—Milch now has Alzheimer's, so recollections derive from recordings made years earlier by his wife—lend the whole affair a sense of melancholy. It's an unflinching self-portrait, and one that could just as easily come from the mouths of the unvarnished antiheroes he put on screen.
It’s a pure shot of Milch as he pushes against the constricting forces that continue to proscribe the limits of his brain and heart and life. If you love the shows he created or if you love the man (or both), this is an essential book to read.