Like those old spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood, Mary Doria Russell’s saga of the famous dentist/sharpshooter/card player Doc Holliday is long on flavor and back story, with a huge dose of history. Russell follows John Henry Holliday from childhood through his consumptive short life – from Georgia to Dallas to Dodge City in Kansas.
Doc Holliday was a Renaissance man who could read Virgil in Latin and play Beethoven on the piano, yet he could enjoy the humor of vaudevillian Eddie Foy, mend a sore tooth or extract a bullet, and bankrupt a rich Texan at faro or poker. His lungs weak from tuberculosis and his vocal chords, sore from smoking and coughing, gave him the soft-spoken demeanor of a displaced Southern gentleman – a unique disguise to anyone who underestimated him:
” I have spent the evenin’ in the unedifyin’ company of a Texan who disliked bullets so much, he tried to damage one with his face.”
Although Russell based the story on real characters and historical facts, she uses a fictional character’s suspicious death in a fire to draw Doc and Wyatt Earp together. Later, Wyatt Earp’s need of dental work and Doc’s almost winning a race with Earp’s horse, cement the famous relationship.
Russell uses familiar personalities of the Old West – the Earp brothers, Bat Masterson, Dog Kelley – and adds a few colorful ones of her own to add substance to her story. She lists “the players” at the beginning of the book, noting which actually existed, but it’s hard not to believe that this may have happened the way Russell imagined it.
It’s easy to fall into the steady cadence of her language. When Russell mentions the sun glinting off the holstered guns or the whores sidling up to the cowboys, the picture is clear – better than the movies. Doc’s real relationship with Kate Harony, the fallen aristocrat-turned-whore who is the educated daughter of a medical doctor, reveals his inner turmoil – a man who would have liked to make a living as a respected dentist – he just couldn’t get enough work. The similarity to today is eerie.
“The economic collapse…America’s…bubble burst… Fortunes quickly made were even more quickly lost…sham prosperity – built on debt – disappeared with shocking suddenness…crushing dreams and wrecking lives, John Henry Holliday’s among them.”
In Doc, Russell dramatically takes John Henry Holliday to the brink of death in Kansas, and then pulls him back. She doesn’t dwell on his relocation to Arizona, and only briefly mentions the famous shoot-out in Tombstone. Her focus is the clever, disciplined man driven by pain, who survived as long as he could manage – and who became an important part of the Old West’s lore – some of his exploits true – most embellished.
“Arriving at the end of historical fiction today, the modern reader is likely to wonder, ‘How much of that was real?’ In this case, the answer is: not all of it but a lot more than you might think.”
Although not a fan of Westerns, I read Doc with relish, and, thanks to Russell, now feel I better understand the man behind the legend.