'Doc': Mary Doria Russell's intoxicating novel of Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and Dodge City
Mary Doria Russell's new novel, "Doc," is a vivid re-creation of the epic story of Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and Dodge City in the late 1870s, a wide-open town of "saloons, saloons with gambling, saloons with dance halls, and saloons with brothels." Russell reads at two locations in Seattle this week.
Special to The Seattle Times
Mary Doria RussellThe author of "Doc" will read at 7 p.m. Monday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com), and at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Central Branch of the Seattle Public Library; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org). Co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
by Mary Doria Russell
Random House, 394 pp., $26
A fascinating window into the shady side of the Old West, Mary Doria Russell's "Doc" tells us not of the notorious showdown at the O.K. Corral, but what happened before it. Populated with a long list of characters (helpfully enumerated at the beginning of the book, with the few fictitious ones in italics), it focuses on two: John Henry "Doc" Holliday, a dentist, Southern gentleman and gambler; and Wyatt Earp, a straight-shooting lawman. The two men formed an unlikely friendship in the late 1870s in Dodge City, Kan., a newly formed town brimming with gunfighters, smiling prostitutes, card tables and opportunity.
Russell, in her fifth novel (her other works include "Children of God," "The Sparrow," "A Thread of Grace" and "Dreamers of the Day"), lets us breathe the dusty air of Dodge City, a town that consisted primarily of "saloons, saloons with gambling, saloons with dance halls, and saloons with brothels." There wasn't much more to it when Doc Holliday arrived in 1878 to establish a dental practice. The slender 26-year-old had recently come West from Atlanta, hoping the drier climate would ease his tubercular cough. Teeth were aplenty in Dodge City, but so were faro tables.
Filled with fluid dialogue through which you can hear the characters' origins (everyone in Dodge City came from someplace else — the broken English of Chinese laundryman Jau Dong-Sing, the lilt of Irish vaudeville entertainer Eddie Foy, the delicate Southernisms of Holliday), "Doc" reads like a movie you can't wait to watch. The novel isn't so much about action, but about mood and place. Here, lawmen must cope with a horse brought to the second story of a brothel (and then, due to narrow hallways, it is unable to turn around and go back down); where a visiting priest spends a single afternoon hearing confessions and is forever changed. "Everything but sloth," he ponders afterward, of the litany of sin he has heard. "Dodge was diligent in sin."
Nearly every woman in Dodge City is a prostitute, and we meet a few of them: Kate, Doc's longtime companion, a hot-tempered Hungarian with an elaborate past who charms him through a mutual love of literature; Mattie Blaylock, so shopworn and dirty that the town madam Bessie Earp (Wyatt's sister-in-law) won't hire her in the bordello, but who ends up as Wyatt's common-law wife. "Every one of them has a story," says Doc of the town prostitutes, "and every story begins with a man who failed her."
Though Earp and his brothers are a vivid, constant presence in the novel, marching through in their plain-spoken way, it's Doc who takes it over. A chivalrous man who "never used one word when twenty would do the same job," he's also a near-invalid, wasting away in his elegant clothing, barely managing to walk the three blocks of Front Street. Though he lives off gambling, he loves dentistry and finds great satisfaction in his work — and in his memories of hearing Beethoven in concert halls as a child, which culminates in a beautifully written scene, late in the book, as Dodge City realizes that its dentist is also a musician.
And how much of this intoxicating book is history, rather than a gifted writer's invention? Russell answers the question in the final pages: "Not all of it, but a lot more than you might think."
Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.