Doc: A Novel Paperback – Mar 6 2012
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“If I had a six-shooter, I’d be firing it off in celebration of Doc . . . a deeply sympathetic, aggressively researched and wonderfully entertaining story.”—The Washington Post
“A magnificent read . . . filled with action and humor yet philosophically rich and deeply moving . . . more realistic yet more riveting than any movie or TV western . . . Doc Holliday is the tragic hero in this terrific bio-epic. . . . Losing their mythic, heroic sheen, figures like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson become more captivating for their complexity.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Intense, individual characters, so fully realized that readers can almost physically touch them, fill the novel’s pages . . . Doc’s restrained but magnificent struggle to rise above the indignities of his disease and of life in Dodge . . . is one of the delights of this surprisingly luminous and elegant novel.”—The Oregonian
“Fascinating . . . Russell’s women are a match for any of the men in Dodge, and their presence at the center of Doc gives the novel an unforced verisimilitude.”—The Plain Dealer
“Intoxicating . . . Doc reads like a movie you can’t wait to watch.”—The Seattle Times
“Grabs us from the opening sentence . . . Russell makes the narrative hum and the characters come alive.”—Chicago Tribune
“Well-written and provocative, Doc is a book that will haunt you.”—Historical Novels Review
About the Author
Mary Doria Russell is the award-winning author of four previous bestsellers: The Sparrow, Children of God, A Thread of Grace, and Dreamers of the Day. Widely praised for her meticulous research, fine prose, and compelling narrative drive, Russell is uniquely suited to telling the story of the lawman Wyatt Earp and the dental surgeon John Henry Holliday. The daughter of Dick Doria, five-term sheriff of Dupage County, Illinois, Mary grew up with guns and cops but she also holds a doctorate in biological anthropology and taught gross anatomy at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dentistry before she left academe to write.
From the Hardcover edition.
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I needn't have worried, it is Russell's wonderful writing and thorough research that makes any subject interesting and accessible. She clearly revels in the research because hers is meticulous; she makes the "wild west" come alive in surprisingly non-stereotypical ways. Clearly she made an effort to separate the myth and legend of Doc Holliday from the truer (and more interesting) tale.
Set primarily in the summer of 1878, the story begins with Doc and his lady-love/prostitute, Kate, who are in Dodge City so that Doc can make enough money gambling to open a legitimate dentistry practice. Descriptions are vivid and fascinating of the riotous activity and carnival atmosphere in a town full of gambling houses and brothels and ignorant but newly rich cowboys. Russell paints a vivid picture of the burgeoning civilization coming to the "wild west" and I found her descriptions of the various denizens of Dodge at the cusp between wildness and civility to be fascinating. She provides the point of view for farmers, cowboys, lawmen, prostitutes and businessmen. Scenes in Doc's dentistry office are illuminating of early dentistry.
A young mixed race man, Johnnie Sanders, friend to both Doc and Wyatt Earp is killed. In an example of early crime forensics, Doc quickly ascertains that Johnnie was murdered and enlists lawman Earp (who feels somewhat guilty about what Johnnie was doing when he died) to help him establish that as fact, without much hope of catching the killer. This is merely a sub-plot, however, because the real meat of the story is in the characters and their relationships to each other and to Dodge City.
The is the fifth novel I've read by Mary Doria Russell, and once again, she made her characters so real to me that several times I found myself near tears with a distinct lump in my throat. I read a LOT and this does not happen to me routinely. She has never failed to move me, and I am always sad to close the last page. To prolong my enjoyment, when I finished the novel I put on a CD of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and closed my eyes and imagined myself in a dance hall in Dodge City in 1878.
Behind every legend there's a person, and it is the person, not the gunfighter, that Mary Doria Russell imagines in her story of Doc Holliday's time in Dodge City. Russell underplays the novel's armed confrontations while taking note of how legends build, how tall tales grow: an incident involving six cowboys evolves in the telling until Holliday faces down two dozen. Ultimately Russell deconstructs the legend, deemphasizing Holliday's skills as a gunfighter/gambler while painting a detailed picture of a loquacious, consumptive dentist who seems always a step away from death. The plot, such as it is, involves the apparent murder of an entirely fictitious character, a friend of Holliday and Wyatt Earp, but the mystery of his death is merely a vehicle to drive a deeper story. It isn't the familiar story of the O.K. Corral and Wyatt Earp's confrontation with the Clantons; the novel makes reference to those events in a concluding chapter, but the story effectively ends in Dodge City, before the Earp brothers and Holliday make their way to Tombstone.
Russell begins with an eyeblink view of John Holliday's Civil War childhood and his brief but violent stay in Texas (where he killed a man and was shot by another). By the time Holliday decides to rebuild his tubercular life in Dodge City, he's taken up with Kate, a princess turned prostitute who entrances him with erudition that matches his own. Kate is a significant figure in Holliday's life and in the novel. Kate's affinity for Holliday is based in part on his ability to win large sums of money at the card tables, in part on his intelligence and education, and in part on her inability to understand him. Unlike the other men in her considerable experience, who "were as obvious and as easily dealt with as a phallus," the complex dentist becomes her most memorable lover. To Kate's dismay, it is Doc Holliday's dentistry, not his gambling, that fills him with pride and purpose. Russell portrays Holliday as a compassionate if ill-tempered man who treats the fictitious characters "China Joe" and John Horse Sanders with respect regardless of their race, who understands the difficult lives that drove women to work in bordellos. Russell's Holliday is a man isolated by his intelligence and southern manners as much as his illness and quick temper.
Russell's Dodge City is a lawless land of unchecked freedom, fueled by the seasonal influx of money brought by Texans driving cattle: "They were giddy with liberty, these boys, free to do anything they could think of and pay for: unwatched by stern elders, unseen by sweethearts back home, unjudged by God, who had surely forsaken this small, bright hellhole in the immense, inhuman darkness that was west Kansas." Russell populates Dodge City with fully realized characters, emphasizing the routine and drama of their daily lives rather than the excitement and rough justice of frontier life. Speaking to Morgan Earp about literature, Holliday argues that Raskolnikoff and Oliver Twist's Fagin are interesting characters because they are a mixture of good and bad. Russell's characters are interesting for the same reasons. She creates a Wyatt Earp who is filled with insecurities instilled by an abusive father. The experiences and motives that drive her politicians and villains illuminate their lives.
I can't speak to the novel's historical accuracy, although I can note that Russell, in an afterward, calls attention to a few minor changes she made in the historical record. She also lists the novel's characters, italicizing the few who are entirely fictitious. Frankly, I don't think it matters; writers of fiction are licensed to change the past for the sake of the story. Still, so far as I can tell, Rusell's novel is as true to the past as it is to the artist's purpose: to tell truths even when they are fictional. Doc is a wise and stirring and truthful novel about a hard, determined, complicated man. It easily merits five stars.
Much of the story is true, but the book is a historical fiction about the life and times of John Henry Holliday, known in real life for his association with the Earp brothers-- Wyatt, Morgan, Virgil and James. He and the Earps are most famous for their 30-second shootout at the O.K. Corral with the Clanton and McLaury brothers in Tombstone, Arizona at 3 p.m. on October 26, 1881, but that is not the focus of "Doc." In fact, the author credits William Barkley "Bat" Masterson with exaggerating and making up dime store novels for personal gain that resulted in Holliday's reputation as a gunslinger and cold blooded killer.
Doc was born on August 12, 1851 in Griffin Georgia in a wealthy family, graduated from Dental Surgery School in Atlanta and opened up an office with a partner in 1872; however, like his mother John was inflicted with consumption (tuberculosis), was given a poor prognosis and encouraged to move to a more arid climate. He moved to Dallas, Texas, Dodge City, Kansas and later Tombstone, Arizona.
The story is primarily about Doc Holliday's long impending struggle with living his adult life as his debilitating disease slowly destroyed his lungs and finally kill him on November 8, 1887. The story describes a man of many facets--a dentist, a gambler, an accomplished piano player, a horseman, an alcoholic, extremely educated, quick tempered, a loyal friend, a friend of the oppressed, and an amazing human being.
John's long on-again off-again relationship with former wealthy educated aristocrat, turned alcoholic prostitute and Doc's gambling promoter known as Kate Harony is an integral part of this fascinating and moving tale.
I was absolutely enthralled with this author's writing style and ability to paint a riveting adventure. Enjoy!
Birthed in the South, John Henry Holliday was given music, books, Catholic ideals and culture that money and affluence afforded the wealthy. He acquired the chivalry, the finesse of a Southern gentlemen, and due to his genius for learning, a dental license from the finest schools in the East. Holliday's Fate appeared sealed; his life would be that of an educated Southern aristocrat who worked in civil employment, married and raised his children to do the same. Sadly, however, Fate is a faithless mistress.
With the Civil War, John's life takes a devastating detour. The family fortune is scalped, thus leaving young Holliday a sickly-ridden(tuberculosis),lonesome man in search of a new destiny. Fate affords young John a residence in Dodge City, Kansas, a wild, untamed frontier that has little encouragement for the pale, gaunt, educated man knocking at it's door. "Doc," as he became nicknamed, used alcohol to numb the perpetual pain of coughing and screaming aches, as laudanum made him too confused. Card dealing(learned in the parlors of plantations for amusement) provided a roof and sustenance; a prostitute, Kate, whose own Fate was skewered, became his paramour. Fate attempts to demand we display ourselves as victims or victors, but, often, it is a combination of both that writes our legacies. Thus is the case for Doc Holliday.
Mary Doria Russell breathtaking prose, mired in adept research, provides us the alter on which we can judge John Henry Holliday, virtues and vices revealed. Off with his head, or my, God, but for the Grace go I, is the reader's decision. Truth is a great leveler on both sides of the scale; this brilliantly constructed fictional, yet factual, novel provides the room for human error; for lost chances; for roads wrongly taken and those completely forsaken.
One of the finest novels I have ever read, I applaud Russell wildly. I am a voracious reader and so few make it to my top lists; this book resides on that upper shelf.
Recommended seems trite, but I highly and profoundly advise reading this inspiring tale of the Wild West and one man, Doc Holliday, who stood before it, imperfect, battling the tornados winded his way with all his mind and might.
The legendary characters that people this book, Doc Holliday, his companion Kate, the Earp brothers, etc., have become caricatures thanks to the legends, myths, and plain old lies that have accreted to them. Russell lovingly restores human dignity to each. They are rendered round and lush with a full complement of wholly human pains, joys, foibles, quirks, passions, and vices. We love, hate, fear, and dream right alongside them as the author takes us on the journey through these several years of their lives.
Russell has that elusive gift of bringing a setting to vibrant life. We breathe the muggy Georgian air that Doc struggles to inhale; we feel the tension in our thighs when Wyatt Earp's 2-dollar horse shies at crossing a rickety bridge. When an August sun broils the prairie, we feel the sweat trickle down our backs. I can't begin to explain what that means to me as a reader. I want all my senses appealed to: I want to smell the oiled leather, bear the racking cough, taste the dust, and delight in an unexpected breeze on a hot afternoon. Russell made sure that I did just that.
The historical details are convincing, without ever becoming tediously pedantic. Even 19th century dentistry practices were rendered interesting. Russell's depiction of the torture of tuberculosis was almost disturbing--I have asthma and there were times my lungs seemed to seize in response to Doc's suffering. It's clear that Russell diligently researched the lives of her characters, the history of the regions where the story takes place, the technology of the period, and the small day-to-day details that bring historical fiction to life.
In short, a delight of a book. This was my first by this author, but it definitely won't be the last.