Doc who? Doc Holliday, it turns out, is the subject of Mary Doria Russell’s latest novel, but that didn’t help me much. Wild West, I thought. Something with guns. Vaguely promising: I downloaded the sample chapter. Opening line: “He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle.” Then a few sentences later, “Hope — cruelest of the evils that escaped Pandora’s box — smiled on him gently all that summer.” In her press materials Russell promises “Doc Holliday will break your heart ” and she made good on that promise. For the last 10% of the book I wept helplessly and happily. As Doc himself says, “Lord, … but I do enjoy a display of professional proficiency!”
Doc tells the story of the summer of 1878 in Dodge City, Kansas. The town’s whole purpose is to make money from the drovers who herd cattle to the railhead for transit to the slaughterhouses back East. Corruption is just beginning to yield to law, and the men with the star-shaped badges are mostly named Earp: James, Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt. Doc Holliday is a proud Georgian consumptive of twenty-six, hoping to establish a dental practice, of all things. He mostly ends up playing poker instead.
I will admit I had trouble following the details of the plot. Russell’s Author’s Note admits that she simplified the political situation but even so I had trouble remembering which of the fellas running Dodge had which interest in keeping what secret or promoting which party agenda. The through-story, about the death of a (somewhat saintly) mixed-race youth, didn’t really keep the whole tale together. Though it did permit Doc, near the end, to instruct a malevolent Yankee to “Get out of my sight…. Get out of Dodge. And don’t come back, you soulless cur.”
You can tell that Russell had a fabulous time with Doc. He’s everything a Romantic hero needs to be: elegant, eloquent, courageous, doomed. Generous, witty, painstaking, a wizard with a piano or a woman or a horse. On Russell’s website (yes, I did some Internet stalking) she talks of her fondness for Dorothy Dunnett’s Game of Kings series of historical novels, and even before I read that, I was strongly reminded of their hero Francis Lymond, also generous, witty, etc. (substitute “lute” for “piano”). But Doc is real, and doomed. Russell makes sure we know just what TB looked like in 1878 but we’re left knowing we can’t imagine the pain.
The characterization doesn’t stop with Doc, of course. There’s his fiery Hungarian mistress Kate, who whores on the side, and those Earp brothers who are made individual and endearing, and an Austrian Jesuit priest and an oily storekeeper and many more. But the atmosphere is also stunning. We all already have many of these Western images in our heads: ” Wyatt was down at the corner, talking to Jack Brown and Chuck Trask, who were sitting in the upstairs windows down at the Green Front and the Lady Gay, one leg in, one leg out, shotgun stocks resting against their thighs on the outside.” Can’t you just see them? Can’t you just hear it when the deputy says, “…it might get kinda noisy around here.” One of the more complex pleasures here is watching Russell turn cowboy movies back into the written fiction that originally spawned them.
That early reference to Pandora sets the stage for recurrent and effective reference to classical mythology. The Fates are invoked often, and at the end we learn that Doc’s mistress Kate was a classical scholar who years later likened Doc to wily Odysseus. Hard not to think of storytelling itself as one subject of the book. Hard to resist this particular display of professional proficiency.