Thursday, July 16, 2015

Two-For-One Review: "Doc" and "Epitaph" by Mary Doria Russell

"He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.

"When he arrived in Dodge City in 1878, Dr. John Henry Holliday was a frail twenty-six-year-old dentist who wanted nothing grander than to practice his profession in a prosperous Kansas cow town. Hope--cruelest of the evils that escaped Pandora's box--smiled on him gently all that summer. While he lived in Dodge, the quiet life he yearned for seemed to lie within his grasp.

"At thirty, he would be famous for his part in the gunfight at the O.K. Corrall in Tombstone, Arizona. A year later, he would become infamous when he rode at Wyatt Earp's side to avenge the murder of Wyatt's brother. To sell newspapers, the journalists of his day embellished slim fact with fat rumor and rank fiction; it was they who invented the iconic frontier gambler and gunman Doc Holliday. That unwanted notoriety added misery to John Henry Holliday's final year, when illness and exile had made of him a lonely and destitute alcoholic, dying by awful inches and living off charity.

"The wonder is how long and how well he fought his destiny. He was meant to die at birth. The Fates pursued him from the day he first drew breath, howling for his delayed demise."


Doc by Mary Doria Russell (2011)
4 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 3/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 3/5
Resolution of Conflict: 3/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Memorability: 5/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: character deaths, racism, misogyny, mention of child abuse, mention of sexual assault, chronic illness
Overall Response: I bought a copy immediately.


More Thoughts: Here I break my rule about writing my own summaries. Russell's opening paragraphs convey the sense of the novel better than anything I could scribble. Doc doesn't follow the classic novel format with a central conflict, confrontations, and all the rest; instead, it is a character piece. And not just one about Doc Holliday. It is a portrait of a time and a place, and about the types of characters that inhabited it.

The words "character piece," uttered about a lesser book, would ordinarily make me run in the opposite direction. Trust me, dear reader. Presumably, I have been right about a book a time or two before, or you wouldn't still be here.

While the book does follow a number of subplots--the mystery of Johnnie Sanders' murder, Wyatt's attempts to acquire a racing horse, the maneuvering for the position of sheriff--the impression one leaves with is not of action, but of personality. Russell's perspective on historical legends is intriguing. She punctures the myth of the "killer dentist" and the "steely lawman," replacing them with humbler, more likely, more human figures. At the same time, she tracks the cues that set those very myths into motion. In some ways, the background plot is about how stories themselves become twisted in the telling.
The facts were these. Dodge city did not invent or manufacture goods. Dodge did not raise or educate children. It did not nurture or appreciate the arts. Dodge City had a single purpose: to extract wealth from Texas. Drovers brought cattle north and got paid in cash; Dodge sent them home in possession of neither.

Dead men don't pay for baths, haircuts, meals, or beds. Dead men don't buy new clothes, or ammunition, or saddles. Dead men don't desire fancy Coffeyville boots with Texas stars laid into the shank. They don't gamble, and they don't spend money on liquor or whores.

And that was why, when the Texans got to Dodge, there was really only one rule to remember: Don't kill the customers. All other ordinances were, customarily, negotiable.
Russell's approach to the American West isn't only meticulously well-researched. It is generous and open-handed. Her characters--nearly all of whom really lived in Dodge at the time--are plucked from all walks of life. Where a lesser author might only have been checking off their research points and congratulating themselves on their diversity, Russell approaches her brainchildren as concrete individuals: products of their time and history, but not representatives of it. No one is ever a mere stereotype--not the taciturn sheriff or the double-dealing banker; neither whores nor priests, murdered black boys, Chinese laundrymen.

While you don't pick up a book entitled Doc without a preexisting appreciation for drawling Southern courtesy and clever putdowns, I was taken aback by how much I came to like Wyatt Earp as well. In Russell's hands, he is "a man of few words" due more to a cleft palate and insecurity rather than to any bleakness of character. Overwhelmed by women, constantly outthought by clever rogues, he becomes the sort of complex, limping hero that a modern reader can appreciate, rather than the two-dimensional stoic warrior of Hollywood.

Another surprise is the attention paid to the women of the West. Nearly all of the female characters are or were prostitutes, and the casual shift from "preferred lover" to "common-law wife" (and back again) is strange to contemplate. I would say that Russell's female characters are at least as developed, if not more so, than the men. She gives these barely-glimpsed historical figures lives and human hearts. Her gentleness in composing a life and personality for Mattie Blaylock, Wyatt Earp's laudanum-addicted first wife, reviled by history, is astounding.

I mentioned in my ecstatic review of The Sparrow, Russell's award-winning debut novel, that Russell succeeds at expressing the inexpressible: namely, the sensation of true rapture. To that I can add: she gives the reader the impression of listening to music, when no sound is physically heard but the turning of a page. A novel about a tired exile trying to die in peace with a relatively clear conscience may seem a strange place to revisit rapture, but there it is.

Doc is not The Sparrow, nor should it be. It is a clever, funny, heart-wrenching, thought-provoking delight of historical fiction. It is a story about trying to make a short life meaningful, to live with pride and dignity in an ugly and lawless world. It's a treat to read, and I give it my recommendation.


Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corrall by Mary Doria Russell (2015)
3 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 4/5
Logic of Plot Development: 2/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 2/5
Resolution of Conflict: 2/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Memorability: 2/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: character deaths, rape, child abuse, chronic illness, racism, misogyny
Overall Response: It may be better researched, but for storytelling I prefer the movies.


More Thoughts: Epitaph, released just a few months ago, picks up the trail of the same legendary figures in Tombstone, Arizona, and follows them through the infamous "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (or, more accurately, "Gunfight in the Vacant Lot behind Camillus Fly’s Photography Studio Near Fremont Street.")

I would not advise reading Epitaph without Doc under your belt. Even Western history buffs, familiar with the general facts of Tombstone in 1881, will need to be acquainted with Russell's particular characterizations of the principle figures.

While Epitaph is the chronological successor to Doc, it inherits few of the first book's virtues. The characters fall a little flat, scenes seem to lead nowhere, and cause and effect are hard to follow. The tidal waves that pound the heart in the first book are stagnant ripples in the latter. Russell tries to play up the epic qualities to the Tombstone legend by heading each chapter with Homeric quotes; this extra weight of gilding does the muddled storytelling no favors.

The book's worst flaw is its composition. The complex narrative is littered with flashbacks and flashforwards, until the reader hardly knows when they cease, or when "now" is supposed to be. Sentences like "He would have no recollection of his first step on the twisted road that led him to a vacant lot behind a photography studio near the O.K. Corrall, thirteen months later" are common and baffling.

If Doc was a symphony for the mind, Epitaph is a wrinkled tapestry whose images you can't quite make out. All throughout the book, I wanted Russell to twitch the cloth straight, quit playing games with time, and just tell the story.

The depth of Russell's research is, as ever, above reproach. She has achieved a remarkable feat in sifting through the hundreds of conflicting reports about the happenings in Tombstone, to hit upon the most likely truth, and to patch the holes in the narrative with likely fiction. She makes wider connections than one might think, tracing the shockwaves that travel through a community: floods and fires, economic downturns, and the assassination of a president. She punctures the myth of Tombstone being a "lawless" town and recreates it as it was: an ordinary frontier town undergoing a temporary upheaval.

Perhaps that is the story's weakness: it is ultimately a political conflict, yet the reader is not sent into it with politically-minded characters. Wyatt Earp is too blunt, almost naive; Doc is clever enough to follow the maneuverings of those in power, but does not care to do so. To an extent, their weaknesses are deliberate choices. On the other hand, the limited perspective of the main characters hobbles the reader's own understanding.

The best scenes in Epitaph revolve around Doc's friendships with women: his instinctive empathy with fellow drug addict Mattie Blaylock, his dependence upon the Earp women who have nursed him through the worst parts of his illness, his instinctive chivalry toward those who have been hurt. The second best--although it is not a pleasant read--are found in the epilogue, chronicling Wyatt Earp's old age, his complex relationship with Hollywood, and his wife Josie's misguided fight for his honor as her cognitive powers slip away from her.

On the smaller scale, Russell's writing remains lovely. Epitaph is strewn with pithy quotes ripe for the picking. But lacking genuine engagement with the characters or a solid sense of direction, I found the sequel to Doc to be a disappointment. 

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