Mary Doria Russell’s novel about Doc Holliday is far from a rip-roarin’ shoot-em-up western. There are shootings, and drinking and gambling and many prostitutes, but the overall tone of the novel is contemplative. John Henry Holliday is a gambler and a shooter, but dentistry and music are his real passions. Gambling is a way to make money, and drinking helps him deal with the tuberculosis that sent him west in the first place. Russell puts it this way:
He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took 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. When he lived in Dodge, the quiet life he yearned for seemed to lie within his grasp.
The book focuses on that time in Dodge, when Doc was prospering his work and useful to the community. Tombstone and the notorious gunfight at the OK Corral loom in his future, but that story must wait until the follow-up book, Epitaph.
Doc is light on plot, being a book about a quiet life. Wyatt Earp has instituted strict laws against carrying guns in town and public drinking and rabble rousing, and he intends to enforce them. (Yes, gun control was a thing in the Wild West.) Doc becomes good friends with Wyatt’s brother, Morg, and Wyatt, who has been plagued with tooth problems, becomes a most favored client.
The plot, such as it is, involves the changing fortunes of Dodge City and how the changes affect the people there. There’s a bit of a mystery involving the death of a young man named John Horse Sanders (one of the few fictional characters in the book). Doc, having identified the body, takes an interest in his death and piques Wyatt’s curiosity about it as well. Mostly, though, the focus of the novel is on character and setting. The story is almost incidental.
This focus made the book hard for me to get into initially, as I kept waiting for something big to happen and a narrative direction to emerge. But Russell’s prose wrapped me up in this world. After having read a string of books that play with timelines, I was, frankly, relieved to find a story that was straightforwardly chronological. I was especially drawn into the tempestuous relationship between Doc and his partner, the Hungarian prostitute Kate Harony. Born to wealth and nobility, Kate loves Doc but doesn’t understand why he’d spend time in a dental office working for such small sums when he could clean up at poker and farro. I must admit, I didn’t care for Kate much, and when Russell presented an alternate future for Doc without her, I longed for that future because it seemed so right. But by the end, Kate’s genuine affection for Doc shone through and made me feel affection for her.
The book’s focus on character and setting pay off at the end, when Dodge City has started to become a place where the Earp’s just won’t fit and when Doc’s lungs appear to be failing for good. The happiness and peace they’d all carved out together prove to be far more ephemeral than anyone had hoped.
I did end up enjoying this and was tremendously moved by the final chapters. I’m interested enough in these characters now to be curious about Epitaph, which focuses on Wyatt Earp and the gunfight in Tombstone. I’m not going to read it right away, however. Russell’s dense prose and slow pace are something I have to be in the right mood for, and I’ve had enough for now.