Friday, October 12, 2012

Falling in Love with Doc Holliday

John Henry "Doc" Holliday
Mary Doria Russell is one of my literary goddesses so when I saw she was writing a book about legendary gunslinger Doc Holliday I thought “hasn't that been done to death?” I've seen all those movies and loved them (I'll watch ANYTHING with Kurt Russell in it – I wonder if they are related.) I have a very vivid memory of going to the drive-in theater with my Dad and brother when I was little to see Gunfight at the OK Corral. But that was over half a century ago and I didn't think there would be anything new to say. I was wrong.

Her book, Doc: A Novel, has a story to tell, of course, but more than that it is packed with glowing, fully-realized people that are so interesting, so charming in their individual ways, and so real that I felt like this was the first time I'd met the people – I'd known the legends all my life but the people were completely new. John Henry “Doc” Holliday is known as a dentist, as a legendary gunfighter, and as a man who fought and eventually lost a battle with tuberculosis but thanks to Russell's intensive research and masterful story-telling, readers will find him a man they could know. He is a well-educated and refined gentleman who has both a dark side and a tender side which are sometimes at odds with each other.
Wyatt Earp

The book is packed with names I've heard all my life – Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Morgan Earp, Eddie Foy – and the women who loved them or put up with them. Russell does a wonderful job of developing the relationship between Holliday and Kate Harony, the whore who was his long-time companion. Kate emerges as a fascinating woman, educated and born to royalty, but reduced to harlotry by her circumstances as an exile. Doc is drawn to her extensive knowledge of literature, music and languages, despite the way she earns her living.

Morgan Earp
Wyatt Earp is an equally fascinating guy. Both he and his brothers Morgan and James are fully realized and believable. Wyatt is the sober, self-contained, righteous widower who ultimately becomes, reluctantly, involved with Mattie Blaylock and eventually comes to care tenderly for her. Morgan is not as sober and straight-laced as Wyatt. Their relationship as brothers is so real and believable. Their brother James, who was badly wounded in the Civil War, and his wife Bessie operate a whore house – and both the brothers rely on him for steadiness and support at times. I particularly loved the scenes when Doc lent Morgan books, encouraging him to read, and then discussed Dostoyevsky and Dickens with him. Russell's ability to imagine those conversations is just delicious.
James Earp

And then there is Bat Masterson who comes across as something of a dandy and a pompous ass at times but you still have to like him.

I have often written about being sick of books populated with unlikeable characters. If I am going to spend 15-20 or more hours with fictional people I want them to be worth spending time with, all of the people in Doc are well-worth it. Wisely, Russell respects the fact that most readers know a lot about these people already and she lets the known facts of their lives linger in the background while she draws us more closely to them as real people with real faults and virtues.

Bat Masterson
I have to be honest, I fell a little bit in love with John Henry Holliday. Nothing makes me happier than falling for a character and it's been a long time since I've felt that way (one of my earlier literary “crushes” was Fr. Emilio Sandoz in Russell's gorgeous book, The Sparrow.) I understand Ms Russell is working on a new book that includes the Clanton brothers and the events that lead up to the notorious gunfight. I absolutely cannot wait to read it.

Thanks for reading.  

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