Ask an American to name a famous Old West showdown, and odds are that even the greenest of greenhorns can come up with one: The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Reinventing the Western has become something of a national pastime since at least Clint Eastwood's 1992 Oscar-winning movie “Unforgiven.” But few have done it as thoroughly as Mary Doria Russell in Doc, her excellently researched and wonderfully written new novel about John Henry “Doc” Holliday, Southern gentleman, scholar, dentist, and itinerant gambler.
Doria Russell has a peripatetic intelligence and has proven she can write deftly about anything from historical novels (“Dreamers of the Day”) to science fiction (“The Sparrow.”) With “Doc,” she swoops into the typically male Western genre and proceeds to clean house, tossing out the spur-jingling clichés of those who “preferred well-dressed drama to bare-naked fact” and rewriting Holliday's story as a Greek tragedy.
One prime example of how radically Doria Russell departs from the traditional playbook: “Doc” ends before Holliday ever sets foot in Tombstone, Ariz.
Born to a Georgia planter with a cleft palate that ordinarily would have been a death sentence, Holliday manages to make it out of infancy, survive both the Civil War and the death of his beloved mother from tuberculosis – only to be diagnosed with the same disease when he was 21. Holliday didn't go West searching for a lawless frontier; he went looking for dry air he could breathe.
Once in Texas, he takes up faro and poker to make ends meet and drinking to control his cough. Since, as he puts it, “the men I play against are rarely overburdened by education,” he does rather well, though the life of a hard-drinking gambler humiliates the Southern aristocrat, who nonetheless maintains the manners instilled by his mama. Outsiders believe that Holliday's unfailing courtesy to everyone, regardless of race or rank, comes "from an admirable democratic conviction that they were every bit as good as he was. In reality he thought himself no better than they: a significant distinction.”
He also hooks up with Maria Katarina Harony, a Hungarian aristocrat turned prostitute who speaks six languages and is prone to quoting ancient Latin and Greek texts. Kate, as she's known, urges Holliday to go to Dodge City, Kan., since “that's where the money is.”
There's quite a lot of it, in fact, mostly being put to illicit purposes. At the time, in 1878, “Dodge City had a single purpose: to extract wealth from Texas. Drovers brought cattle north and got paid in cash; Dodge sent them home in possession of neither.”
There, Doc – much to the disgust of Kate – sets up shop in a town where his patients had never seen a toothbrush. Kate freelances at the local brothel owned by James Earp's wife, Bessie, and looks for high-stakes games for Holliday. The local lawmen are Earp's brothers, sunny Morgan and taciturn Wyatt. Also rattling around Dodge are future Vaudeville star Eddie Foy and Bat Masterson, lawman-cum-newspaper reporter, who plans on writing about “The Killer Dentist.”
If the cast weren't enough, there's also a mystery at the heart of “Doc”: A multiracial teenager named John Horse Sanders is found dead in a burned-out stable. Masterson rules it an accident, but neither Wyatt Earp nor Holliday are convinced. “Doc” isn't a whodunit, though. Doria Russell is firmly invested in the fallout of unintended consequences and the tragedy of a brilliant mind trapped under a death sentence.
“Dime novelists worked hard to make a city marshal's job seem thrilling,” Earp thinks. “They told stories about showdowns and shoot-outs and so on, but they mostly made it all up.”
Doria Russell, on the other hand, can trade a shoot-out for a piano concerto and convince a reader they've gotten the best of the bargain.
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