Alan's Reviews > Doc

Doc by Mary Doria Russell
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's review
Oct 07, 11

Recommended to Alan by: Previous work; Avital
Recommended for: Desperados and aficionados
Read in October, 2011, read count: 1

"To live outside the law you must be honest."

Bob Dylan sang those words, a hundred years or so after the short life of Dr. John Henry "Doc" Holliday, the iconic figure who is the subject of Mary Doria Russell's eponymous, amazing and redemptive novel.

Doc Holliday lived in places and during years that are often described as lawless. Doc focuses almost entirely on his residence in Dodge City, Kansas, before he ever moved to Arizona or heard of the O.K. Corral. And he was certainly honest—often to his detriment, as he had a sharp and eloquent tongue, and little patience for fools. But honesty is, of course, a good policy even for those who live within the law, and it seems that most popular images of Holliday give him a criminal character that simply disappears upon closer inspection.

To be sure, the man portrayed in Doc is a consummate gambler and card handler, and a dab hand with a derringer; he lives with an exotic prostitute and drinks bourbon copiously and constantly; he's usually out of money, but spends lavishly whenever he's flush from fleecing the cattlemen who came through Dodge City... not exactly a model citizen. But in truth Holliday was as law-abiding and honest as he could manage to be, given his situation and constitution. He was a close companion of lawmen like Wyatt and Morgan Earp. He treated his friends generously, his opponents graciously (well, for the most part), and his enemies—of whom at times there were bewilderingly many—with honor, if not always with respect. Confronted daily with the knowledge of his own mortality, Holliday rose above the tuberculosis that was slowly killing him, to live life largely on his own terms.

In fact, Doc may be a bit too saintly here, a bit too modern and tolerant to be quite believable. Although the novel is based on Russell's meticulous research into primary and close secondary sources, the spin placed on that factual framework must of necessity be speculative, and I think she brings quite a lot of herself to the way Doc is portrayed. Russell is an excellent writer, though, erudite and expressive. Her first novel, The Sparrow, amazed many—including me—with its vivid and uncompromising take on the venerable speculative subgenre of First Contact with alien beings. I ran across Doc at a friend's house and read the first few pages; those, and my regard for her previous work, made it pretty much certain that I'd be picking this one up.

In Doc, Russell manages many voices with complete aplomb, from the rough diction of frontier lawmen like Wyatt Earp and Dodge City streetwalkers like Mattie Blaylock, to the polyglot utterances of Doc's contradictory companion Kate Harony, to the elegant, weary Southern cadences and precise clauses of the classically-educated Holliday himself. Exchanges in Latin and French abound, between Harony and Holliday in particular, existing in sharp contrast to Dodge City's everyday conversation—but Russell handles both beautifully. When not speaking otherwise, though, Miz Russell's honey-dipped, world-weary phrases slip gracefully into the ear, exactly the way I fondly imagine Holliday himself would have spoken them.

I'm unashamed to say that I wept at the conclusion of Doc—it's just that good, that fitting. I'm unashamed to admit that at times I felt short of breath myself, reading about Doc's disease—Russell's prose is just that good, that compelling. In Doc, Mary Doria Russell has created a character to admire, and one who is perhaps truer to the real John Holliday than any of the others that have been portrayed to date.
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