"Doc" by Mary Doria Russell, Random House, 394 pages, $26
Writing historical fiction is difficult. Authors must do enormous amounts of research to find the correct personalities, cultures and character of diverse people who lived together and translate those into readable and believable action and dialogue.
Mary Doria Russell has done just that in this fascinating book of one the most tragic stars of the tiny period of Western American history when cattle towns boomed and attracted the dregs of society's sinners. Her biography of John Henry (Doc) Holliday, set mostly in Dodge City, Kan., in 1878, is a splendid look at not only a tragic and largely misunderstood intellect but also his friends, the famous family of Earp brothers, years before their OK Corral shootout in Arizona.
My first thought on getting this book was, "Oh no, what more can be done with Doc Holliday," who inspired so many exaggerated dime novels and shelves of good and bad biographies? Not to mention all the movies. Yet, here in very realistic fiction is a true understanding of a complex person who stumbled onto the world's stage for a brief starring role that still captivates fans across the earth.
Doc was a young man, a well-trained and knowledgeable dentist, diagnosed at age 22 with tuberculosis in his native Georgia. He went west to find a cure and wound up in Dodge City with the whore Kate, who was clearly his intellectual equal. He came from a planter family devastated by the Civil War; she was a Hungarian princess from Mexico ruined by the civil war there.
Doc was unfailingly polite and charming except when he was angry or surrounded by ignorant yokels who easily were wounded by his savage sarcasm; he often responded with violence or drawn guns. He longed for intellectual companionship, a well-tuned piano for his brilliant musicianship and, above all, an end to the constant razor cuts in his lungs from his disease. He drank too much, but booze would cut through the phlegm enough so he could go on to the next card game.
For Doc was a professional gambler. He wanted only to be a good dentist, but couldn't support his and Kate's extravagances from that practice, so he skinned drunken cowboys and soldiers at the game of faro just so he could get into high-stakes poker.
Russell dissects a few months of Dodge City history with mesmerizing sketches of all the characters in this complex story, giving us memorable looks at Wyatt Earp and his brothers, the sheriff Bat Masterson, rich merchants and a bevy of prostitutes. This book is an adventure to read and impossible to put down.