I first fell in love with Westerns in Japan, of all places. When I was 12, we lived for a year in a little town in Southern Honshu named Iwakuni, and because buying electronics is one of the things one does when one lives in Asia, my dad bought a $700 Betamax player (oops) and rapidly began scooping up pirated movies galore (oops, again) . Since he was in charge of developing the Wood Family Betamax Library of Copyright Infringement, he tended to focus on the movies he loved himself — which is why I grew up watching a LOT of Clint Eastwood films.
As I got older, I branched out of the Eastwood spaghetti Western genre (though those still hold a very special place in my heart — see my previous review about Tarantino’s Django Unchained and references therein!) and started getting into the other classics. But despite seeing more than one variation on the infamous O.K. Corral yarn, I never really got sucked into that story or its players (the Earps, etc.) until 1991′s Tombstone tumbleweeded into local theaters.
Thanks largely to Val Kilmer’s exhilarating performance, I was instantly intrigued by dentist-turned-gunslinger John “Doc” Holliday (when I first met my husband, in fact, I told him I wanted to be Doc Holliday when I grew up. His response? “Be careful who you emulate, cough cough.”). In the years since, I’ve rewatched many of the Holliday players of the past (My Darling Clementine, The Outlaw, Cheyenne Autumn, etc.) and also most of the players since (Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp and Randy Quaid in Purgatory, to name two Quaids), and I’ve never found a performance of that role that has struck me nearly as much as Kilmer’s did.
I’ve since read a number of books (fiction and non-fiction) about Holliday, the Earps, and even a novel about Doc’s prostitute girlfriend “Big Nose” Kate Harony (though for the life of me, I cannot find the title of that book anywhere now, which is too bad because I remember really enjoying it). And one of the things that’s always struck me most about the Western genre, as I got more and more into both fact and fiction, is how completely idealized it is; how utterly beautified the real stories become in the hands of storytellers, beginning with the dime novels springing up back in the day and carrying all the way through to the big screen. I mean, this is how it usually goes when you take a true story and you turn it into a movie or a novel, I suppose, but it’s a characteristic of Westerns in a way I don’t always see it in other genres.
In other words, if you’ve ever read a non-fiction book about Doc Holliday, you know what you see in Kilmer’s performance, as delightful as it is, is not exactly the truth.
In this regard, Russell’s novel Doc is a real stand-out; it was clear from early in the story that this was not going to be the usual White Hat vs. Black Hat oater. Russell did her research, and the Doc in this book comes to life in a completely new and mesmerizingly authentic way. It begins with the line, “He began to die when he was 21,” and from that sentence forth, we feel the pall of that death sentence hanging over everything Doc does in a way I’ve never really been cued into it before. Imagine getting that diagnosis back then at that age — I can’t do it. I can’t imagine it. Not just a death sentence, but a PAINFUL death sentence. Thanks to this novel, however, the agony, despair, and fear that drove so many of Holliday’s choices becomes tangible. And moving in the extreme, to boot (pun intended) (about the boots).
Doc takes us from John’s early years, born into a wealthy family with a mother fiercely determined to make sure all her sons grew into educated gentlemen, through his fleeing West, seeking relief for the constant coughing and throat pain from his tuberculosis.
There, he initially strives to establish a career as a dentist, something most mass media portrayals of him barely touch on. As one of the first dentists to practice in the West, though, Doc finds it’s not nearly as easy to convince the locals to take care of their teeth as he’d hoped (most were afraid of dentists, having never ever been to one before). A lot of times in a lot of films and novels, Doc is depicted as a man out to make a buck — a gambler first, and a gunslinger. . . er, tied for first. But in reality, he was an extremely compassionate man. He went into dentistry because he wanted to relieve suffering, and he worked for many years in the West pro bono or on a sliding scale to try to help as many people as he could.
As his TB worsened, though, and whiskey became the one “treatment” that eased his raw throat, he began to struggle with his financial situation, especially once he realized he could make more money in a single night of gambling than in a year of dentistry. And that’s kind of where his life started to fall apart.
Though the novel introduces us to the Earps, obviously, Wyatt isn’t the Earp boy with the biggest role — another new look at an old story. Instead, and apparently this is true, Doc met Morgan first and was very close friends with him (you know, the brother with barely any lines in Tombstone?). Though he deeply respected Wyatt, their relationship was never as close as his friendship with Morg.
Those looking for another telling of the infamous OK Corral tale, by the way, will need to look elsewhere — this novel ends before we get that far (and how refreshing that it does, really). Doc’s gun-fighting days are not the relevant ones in this story — it’s more about how he got to those days, than what he did with them once they arrived. Russell has always been a wonderful descriptive writer (her sci-fi novel The Sparrow is an old favorite of mine and though it’s been over a decade since I last read it, there are still images from that book I can picture vividly in my mind — that tells you a lot about her power as a writer, I would say), and under her fingers, the Wild West comes alive in such a sympathetic way it seems like a brand new creation. An alien planet of a far more commonplace type of compassion and struggle — and survival — than we usually get to see in this genre.
Ron Charles, in a review of the novel for the Washington Post, described it like this:
“‘Doc’ is no colorized daguerrotype; it’s a bold act of historical reclamation that scrapes off the bull and allows those American legends to walk and talk and love and grieve in the dynamic 19th-century world that existed before Hollywood shellacked it into cliches . . .”
I love that — and I loved this book! Absolutely a must for any fan of the genre, or of really original and evocative writing. Another new favorite book by Mary Doria Russell, who has hit up just about every genre at this point and nailed them all. I can’t wait to see what she does next. A true delight, her work.
(Incidentally, how annoying is that book cover? Primo example of the issue outlined by Meg Wolitzer in the New York Times last year about the differences in jacket art for books written by men vs. women: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/books/review/on-the-rules-of-literary-fiction-for-men-and-women.html. I have to wonder how many men have walked right by this novel after taking one look at the cover, thinking it’s “chick lit” instead of a powerfully good Western. Very frustrating. Don’t be fooled, fellas — this is a book for both genders!)