Having had so much fun reading Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, I figured, why not give the Western another go? And I did not steer myself wrong. Not as laconic or humorous as DeWitt’s novel, Mary Doria Russell’s historical fiction Doc is every bit as good as the former. While one of the things I liked about DeWitt’s effort was the sparse set of characters, Russell peoples her novel with all of the names we’ve come to associate with the Old West, and then some. But since many of us have grown up with the Old West tales of Doc Holliday, the Earp Brothers, and Bat Masterson, you’ll find yourself already familiar with the characters. Russell fleshes them out however, and turns the story of Doc Holliday on its head, portraying the gambler-dentist as a tragic figure.
Earlier when I had written about DeWitt’s novel, I forgot to include the motif of teeth brushing, which figured prominently there. In Doc the new art of Dentistry shines again! (At one point, Doc reminds Wyatt Earp, “don’t forget to brush”). John Henry Holliday really wants to make a viable career for himself as a dentist, but his tubercular condition (inherited from his mother Alice) forces him to move out West, where Dentistry is not a top priority, nor a money-making proposition. Doc finds himself forced to make his living as a gambler. In this he’s spurred on by his companion, and on again off again lover, a fallen aristocrat, the highly educated Kate Harony, now making her living as a prostitute. She also is the advance scout for Doc to find ‘profitable’ poker games. Kate is one of the more memorable characters in recent fiction, a complex and highly educated hooker, who quotes Latin and Greek. Like most of the figures populating the pages of this highly readable novel, she was an actual historical figure.Theirs is an odd love story, that runs from melodrama to drunkenness to quite tender moments. One of the many charms of the novel. There is an extended scene in which Doc is urged to sit down and play the piano. Finally, there is one that is in tune (thanks to Kate). He chooses Beethoven’s The Emperor, which he had played for his mother. It’s a lovely moment, and leaves much of the audience in the saloon, especially those who have a fondness for Doc, teary eyed. Maybe the readers too.
Besides the two main protagonists, there are others. I like the way Russell uses the characters we already know. She introduces them into the novel without much back story. We already have an idea of what the back story is, right? Then, later, she writes of earlier incidents in their lives that serve to complete, enhance really, the picture of what we thought we knew about people like Wyatt Earp. Like Bat Masterson. Russell is reported to be working on a follow-up to Doc, a novel centered on Wyatt Earp.
The law in service to the business interest apparently has a long tradition in American life. Bought and sold by the politicians, the law serves at the whim of the business interests. The archetype here is Robert C. “Bob” Wright, proprietor of Wright’s General Outfitting Store (and a member of the Kansas House of Representatives.
Besides giving us memorable and complex characters, Russell is a fine writer of nature, with many passages that sing, in their own simple way like this one:
Sudden, slanting light broke the horizon and made the dew glitter. Doc sat silently for a time, watching the short grass ripple in the breeze, listening to the red-winged blackbirds down by the slough, and to the meadowlark and the quail.
And when Doc finally mounts the horse that everyone had lusted after, Russell again paints an image that any rider could relate to:
He leaned forward. She gathered herself beneath him. They took off, headed north through the short grass toward a ripening wheat field, gold and copper and ocher in the mellow autumn light.
Much of the novel centers around gambling. Many of the central events are set up and defined by the gambling hall and gamblers taking money off of drunken cowboys. The direction and fortunes of some of the professional gamblers themselves take unhappy turns just by a twist of….something. Doc believed in the science of gambling, the mathematics of it. Luck had no place in his pantheon.
Moera, the Greeks called Mother Fate, the ancient apportioner of lots. Her decisions were unalterable and made long before a mortal’s birth, rendering human striving valueless and vain. Fortuna was the Romans’ answer to that grim Grecian goddess. Not everything was settled before a babe drew breath, but Fortune ruled over half of life; her caprices could explain why a man might prosper one day and come to ruin the next, without a single change in his habits or his character. Providence, Christianity countered. Destiny is divinely dictated, but influenced as well by our decisions and our deeds. Providence, moreover, holds out the promise that, one day, a just God’s plan will be made known to his puzzled people.
For Doc, Luck
was what fools called ignorances and laziness and despair when they gave themselves up to the turn of a card and lost, and lost, and lost…
You see, the author feels differently. The very existence of the legend of Doc Holliday owes to the sequence of events, that if changed in the details, may only have led to obscure lives lived out on the western prairies. In the end, Doc was a victim of what could only be called chance, the progression of events that turned the mathematics against him. Doc is a thoroughly researched work of historical fiction, but is never bogged down in history. She brings this all to life. The wonderful thing is the way she tears down the myths that we have grown up with and re-constructs the legend in an even larger and grander fashion. Ten-gallon hats off to the author.