Monday, July 04, 2011

Book Review: Doc

One of my favorite writers, hands down, is Mary Doria Russell, who is, like me, a native of Lombard, Illinois. The first book of hers I read, The Sparrow, was a work of science fiction and was startling in its characterization and sheer literary brilliance. What startled me most, I suppose, was that the book moved me, something that doesn't happen very often, as I am a very detached reader. Her subsequent books, Children of God, A Thread of Grace, and Dreamers of the Day, were each a treat as well. Russell's latest work, a biographical novel about John Henry Holliday, better known as the dentist who fought alongside Wyatt Earp and his brothers at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. As with other books by Ms. Russell, I breezed through this book in a couple of sittings. The reason for this rapid read was not that I was speed-reading but simply because she's that good and the story is that absorbing.

I suppose most people of my generation know of Doc Holliday and the Earps through the 1990s movies Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. The two actors who portrayed Holliday in these films were Dennis Quaid and Val Kilmer, both of whom took the time to get the Georgia aristocrat's accent right. I'm more familiar with Kilmer's interpretation of the man, as Tombstone is just a more entertaining movie. Kilmer portrays Holliday as a thrill-seeking, cynical, drunken gunslinger and criminal. The most memorable lines among many Kilmer utters as Holliday are "I'm your huckleberry" and "I have not yet begun to defile myself." Quaid's portrayal is hazier to me (It's really hard to watch a Kevin Costner film, let alone one that lasts for three hours), but he does different things with the role, portraying Holliday as more of a fallen aristocrat than an out-and-out bad man. Quaid is more of a professional card sharp. One of his first lines is "Make sure you take good care of your teeth, son." Holliday was, after all, a doctor of dental surgery.
The gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the events leading up to it have been portrayed in several other films (including one starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas). Ms. Russell does not portray this fight, except by flash-forward or foreshadowing. Doc concerns Holliday's early life over a couple of chapters before focusing primarily upon his time in Dodge City, Kansas.

I like what Russell does here. By covering a generally unknown part of Holliday's life, we get a different look at the character. This is actually a happier time for him, as he comes to a place where he can practice his professional craft and had yet to become notorious as a participant in an infamous gunfight. His consumption--tuberculosis, as it is known now--was less painful, at least for most of the book, which occurs in 1878. What Russell gives the reader is the story of, yes, a fallen Georgia aristocrat, but one more known for his quick tongue than his quick draw. He was educated well for the time, knowing French, Latin, and Greek. He played piano with proficiency and had a Southern gentleman's touchiness about matters of honor and propriety. He is portrayed as a man of great insight and sensitivity, which could have been born from any number of reasons. But one thing Russell makes clear is that the man was not a cold-blooded killer.

And yet despite all this, he became caught up in the wild, roustabout life of a Western cattle town, dealing faro, living with a prostitute, and carrying a gun in a town where carrying guns was illegal.

Russell’s marvelous at characterization because she depicts the good and bad in people in all their complexity. Sometimes she does not even bother trying to explain how both can exist in the same person. But what she does with almost every character upon which she turns her literary attention is something that is marvelous: she grants each one their own moment of hope or grace. That is what touched me about her first book, The Sparrow. Whatever bad things had happened to him, no matter his understandings or errors, he was privileged to have a moment of hope about his existence. Holliday, too, has such a moment, and it is wonderful to behold. Again, for reasons that elude me, Doc had the ability to move me. Impressive.

And here’s the part that always impresses me about Ms. Russell’s writing: the ease with which the reader can absorb it from the page. I engaged in a little correspondence after reading one of her books expressing my appreciation and thanks. That sort of smooth, effortless-to-the-reader experience isn’t too complicated to figure out: “You just need 50 or so drafts,” she wrote, or words to that effect. That is craftsmanship of a high order. And the narrative voice for Doc is unique as well. As with many of her stories, she writes in a variant of third-person-unlimited narrative voice, in that she does not depict events strictly from Holliday’s point of view, but sometimes from a generalized collective voice of the people of the time. Take this passage describing winter in Kansas:

“The first sign of what you were in for? Just a shift in the wind. Right before Christmas, usually. Huge clouds the color of spent charcoal would pile up on the far horizon. Suddenly the temperature would drop like a rock, and the first blizzard of the season would roar across the plains and hit you like a damn train. Men would get caught outdoors—fixing a fence, maybe—no coat, just wearing what seemed sensible that morning when the sun was shining and it looked to be another pretty day. Happened so fast, you didn’t hardly know what to think.

That’s how it was the year John Riney took over a farm from a Dutch fella, out north of Dodge.”

I also like Russell’s proficient way of characterization through dialogue. As with the narration above, so too with her dialogue: she gets across the intent and flow of a character’s voice without resorting to bad attempts at “dialect.” What she will do occasionally is give the reader a flavor for how someone speaks. She also has a natural ear for the spoken word, even when she writes soliloquies, like this one that she puts into the mouth of Wyatt Earp:

“There can’t be one law for rich Texans and another law for broke Texans, and another law for Negroes, and another one for Chinamen, and squaws, and Irishmen, and whores, and another one for everybody else. I can’t parse it that way, Dog! I am not that smart! There’s got to be one law for everybody, or I can’t do this job.”

I made the mistake several years ago (during my brief correspondence with Ms. Russell) of questioning her affection for one of her characters--specifically, T. E. Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia," whom I saw, and still see, as an instigator of many of the West's problems in the Middle East. Not one of my more diplomatic moments, perhaps, but that takes away nothing from her mercury-quick writing or her believable and even likeable portrayal of the man. Live and learn.

I think what Russell did for me with this book was make these legendary figures of the American West more human, more real. And not just more real, but likeable, each with their own capacity for attaining some sort of peace, or grace, this side of the grave. You can get a sense of the author’s religious convictions (whatever they might be) in these moments, and Russell’s work abounds with them.

Read her work. Any of her work. You won’t be disappointed.

1 comment:

lin said...

I liked Quaid's interpretation of the role of Holliday as a rogue and a roue.