By Mary Doria Russell
Random House ($26.00, 394 pp.)
If you think the historical Western disappeared with Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, think again. Michigan crime writers Elmore Leonard and Loren Estleman have been writing them for years. Ron Hansen’s early novels told the stories of the Dalton and James gangs in Kansas. And then there is the 800 pound gorilla in the genre: Larry McMurtry’s sweeping Lonesome Dove, a novel so good and so rich in character that it won a Pulitzer and became a four part TV mini-series. No Western has quite measured up since – until Mary Doria Russell’s new novel Doc.
The eponymous Doc is none other than Dodge City’s famous John H. “Doc” Holliday whom Russell’s novel brings to life like no caricatured TV show or movie ever has. Right from the start we learn that he was afflicted with the same fatal tuberculosis that took his devoted mother. We also quickly learn that Doc was not a physician, “a haven for quacks and charlatans hawking patent medicines and fake cures to the unsophisticated,” but a surgical dentist, a more “scientific discipline and a respectable profession for a gentleman.” With his education and skills, he was destined for a professional career in Atlanta until his TB ruthlessly took hold such that his family sent him west where dry air might, if not cure, at least slow the disease.
The Earp Brothers
And so Russell takes us to Dodge City (“Naming this place Dodge City was pure bluff. It barely amounted to a village.”) where Doc falls in with the lawmen Earp brothers informally led by Wyatt, whose “[chin] was strong and square and chiseled, and silently proclaimed his strength of character and moral rectitude,” and Morgan, who “loved the feel of a book in his hands, loved the pictures books drew inside his head, loved even the smell of paper, and leather binding, and glue.”
Doc takes up with Kate, a multi-lingual, classically educated Austro-Hungarian immigrant who found herself in Dodge by way of Mexico City after she escaped when Maximilian’s court fell to Juarez in the Revolution. What can an over-educated former heiress do to survive in a no place Kansas cow town but become a part time classy whore and take up with the best poker player in the saloons of Front Street?
Russell’s Wild West is not all that different from that of the HBO series Deadwood, but without the foul-mouthed dialogue. To be sure, there are few sissies in Dodge City; but when the sheriff is a reformed moralist like Wyatt, things are pretty clean – to Kate’s dismay. (“I don’t trust him…He don’t drink. He goes to church! Never trust a lawman who goes to church.”) The itinerant priest comes from Wichita to hear confession and returns to one-up his peers with the “litany of violence, greed, deceit, and debauchery…all in a single memorable afternoon. Everything but sloth, he realized afterward. Dodge was diligent in sin.”
Get Out of Dodge, You Cur
Doc has all the clichés of the old west – the good-hearted Chinaman who works himself to death (and wealth) running a laundry, the drovers who shoot up the town in their adolescent drunkenness after driving cattle up from Texas, and horses which are admired, bought, sold, bred, raced, and stolen. It even has Doc’s well-delivered classic line: “Get out of Dodge. And don’t come back, you soulless cur.”
We all know the story…or do we? In Russell’s able hands the familiar story becomes rich in nuance, capturing the times as they surely must have been – not the romance of good guys versus bad guys, but the hard lives of hard-living people trying to make a go of things in a hard world…and none more so than the fascinating Doc Holliday.
He is a complicated man. Despite his extraordinary skills in dentistry, his knowledge of classical literature and languages, his mastery of Beethoven’s “Emperor” piano concerto, and his empathy for the downtrodden and the helpless; he must live a life on the frontier of civilization knowing he carries a TB death sentence yet struggling daily to be a man of value to those around him. When he once saves Wyatt from a gang of drunken cowboys, he proudly thinks: “And it wasn’t Wyatt Earp they’d feared. It was little ole John Henry Holliday, a sick, skinny dentist from Griffin by-God Georgia!” In this epic novel the sick, skinny dentist becomes Odysseus; and in Russell, Doc finds his own Homer.