High noon at the O.K. Corral (actually around 3pm), The Earps and their pal John “Doc” Holliday face down the Clantons, and when the smoke clears there are three men dead, and a trail of vengeance begun that would lead to more deaths. That is all most folks know about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Here, Doc never makes it to Tombstone.
Instead, Mary Doria Russell has written a superb story about the Earps and Holliday that explores their lives in Dodge City, Kansas in the years before they made it out to Arizona. John Holliday has left his native Georgia to make his way West, in hopes of easing the effects of the tuberculosis that would kill him in less than a decade. Seeking to set up a practice as a dentist, he supplements his meager earnings through his skills at the faro and poker tables. In the course of his time in Dodge, he meets and becomes uneasy friends with sometime lawman Wyatt Earp, second oldest son of a large and close family originally from Illinois. In Russell’s able hands, the Earps and Holliday escape the bonds of gunslinger mythology with which they have been so long entangled. Holliday’s illness and touchy temper shape his encounters with everyone from priests to prostitutes to cowboys. As Russell depicts him, Holliday is a faithful, if at times difficult, friend, and a bad enemy. He moves quickly from charming to deadly cold, but cares deeply about people. Wyatt Earp may be the most sympathetic character in the book. His patience with Holliday, his affection for his brothers, and his resolute honesty make it impossible not to like him. The other characters, fictional and real, are equally appealing and equally complex.
Russell not only excels at character, she also does a fine job at creating a sense of place that feels all too real. Dodge City comes to life in all its squalor, casual violence, political corruption, difficult family lives, and occasional humor. Frontier towns were not all cowboys and saloons: actor and comedian Eddie Foy brings his show to town and becomes friends with Holliday and the Earps. Russell also introduces a fictional priest, an Austrian Jesuit, who becomes friends with Doc and Wyatt.
Doc is death-haunted. Holliday knows that he will not live long, and it is painful to read about the agonizing effects of his TB. There are numerous deaths in the book both prior to the time of the story and in it. Accidents, illness, and all too common violence take their toll on the characters. Nonetheless, this is an optimistic story. Although we know that many of the characters, Doc, Morgan Earp, and others, will meet hard ends down the road, here, we see them as fully-realized human beings, trying to make their way in a difficult world. Regardless of whether you are interested in the West or in westerns, you should read Mary Doria Russell’s Doc. It is the work of an outstanding writer at the top of her game.
Check the WRL catalog for Doc