Saturday, February 6, 2016

Requiem For A Dentist

Doc Doc by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"I’m your huckleberry."
- Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone

I’m far the first person to bring up Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc in the movie when reviewing this book, but it’s hard to avoid the comparison other than just the obvious fact that they’re both stories about the same man. Much like Tombstone embraces the legend of a dying drunken dentist turned gambler with a talent and taste for gun fighting but also adds unexpected depths thanks in large part to Kilmer’s performance, the book speculates about the man behind the myth and creates a tragic figure with a lot of admirable qualities.

The book moves us briskly through the early part of John Henry Holliday’s life as the son of aristocratic Southerners before the Civil War to the promising young man who seems poised to make his mark as a talented dentist before being given a delayed death sentence from tuberculosis. Seeking to extend his life Holliday travels to Texas, and when dentistry can’t pay the bills his skill at poker does. That’s where Doc meets Kate, the lady who will be both his loyalest ally and greatest tormentor, and she convinces him to move to the Dodge City, Kansas, which is booming thanks to the cattle herds being driven up from Texas.

Doc becomes a local fixture in Dodge, meeting many people and making interesting new friends like Morgan Earp. When a young man is killed in a stable fire most of Dodge just thinks that it is a tragic accident, but Doc suspects there was something more sinister behind the man’s death, and this gives him something in common with Wyatt Earp who also has reasons to think foul play may have been involved. As Doc deals with his on-going illness and Kate’s tantrums, Wyatt tries to keep the peace and navigate Dodge’s murky political waters. A bond eventually forms between the two man with the stoic Wyatt being amazed at the intelligence and sheer force of will that the sickly dentist exhibits while Doc is impressed with the law man’s honesty and integrity.

One of the more interesting things about it is addressed in the author’s afterward in which Mary Doria Russell notes:

"When Homer sang of Troy and Virgil wrote of Carthage and Rome, no one expected a bright line to divide myth from history. 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."

Russell goes on to explain what is fictional while laying out some of the things she drew on for the real, and it's obvious that she did a lot of homework to bring Doc and Dodge City to life. However, it's the bit about what modern readers expect in historical fiction that caught my attention because that's usually the first question I'll ask when finishing a book like this. Now I'm wondering if that's how I should approach stories where the myth has so overshadowed the real people and events that it's almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. Especially in one where the players have alternately been idealized or demonized to suit the purposes of whoever was telling the story at the time.

Doc Holliday has been written about in histories and historical fictions as well as being portrayed on screen countless times, and he's been painted as a bloodthirsty scoundrel, a man of honor, a murderer, and a loyal friend, and sometimes he was all of these at once. When a character has been played by multiple famous actors and even appeared on an episode of classic Star Trek it gets hard to know what to think about the guy. Even a close study of the historical facts as we know them leaves a lot open to interpretation.

So how do we tell stories about a guy like Doc Holliday? As they said in another western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the truth becomes legend, print the legend."

That’s precisely what’s been done here with this fascinating account that is equal parts historical fiction, western, character study, and just an all-around well-written book that is so elegantly told that it might be called delicate despite its rough frontier setting. Doc is the focal point, of course, but the shifting viewpoint also puts us into the thoughts of most of the major characters, and by the time it’s all done you’ll understand exactly what who they are and want they want in this particular version of their story.

One oddity is that despite the main character being known as a gunfighter and taking place mostly in one of the wildest cow towns of the era is that this isn’t filled with shoot-em-up action in the same way that Tombstone is. It's closer to Lonesome Dove, and some of it feels like HBO’s Deadwood. In the end, this is good enough on its own to make even the obvious comparisons feel a bit lame, and I’ll be checking out it’s follow-up, Epitaph, in the near future.

This book definitely was my huckleberry.

Note: I rewrote parts of this review on 2/6/16 because some of the comments I got made me think I wasn't sufficiently clear in what I was trying to say about the difference between writing a history and a historical fiction, and I thought I was potentially misrepresenting what Mary Doria Russell wrote in her author's note. I've tried to clarify that by including her quote and expanding on my own thoughts on the matter.

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