"Doc" by Mary Doria Russell, review by Bruce Jacobs
"Doc" by Mary Doria Russell (Random House, ISBN 9781400068043, $26.00)
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. Thirty years ago former WSU MFA writer-in-residence Ron Hansen got his start with Desperadoes, a novel about the Dalton gang in Coffeyville. And then there was 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 become 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, and Russell's novel brings him to life like no caricatured TV show or movie ever has. Right from the start we learn that he was afflicted with the same 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.
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 Hungarian immigrant whore who steers him to lucrative poker games and nurses his failing health…when she is not lost in bourbon or earning a living on her back. Cowboys shoot up the town after cattle drives from Texas. A mysterious murder of a mixed-race young prodigy of Wyatt and Doc is covered up. Horses are bought, sold, raced, and stolen. And then Doc and the Earps find themselves the reluctant heroes of the notorious O. K. Corral shootout.
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.
Review by Bruce Jacobs