Dealt a bad hand: A review of Doc

  • Dentist’s office, late 19th century.

    Istock, Scott Cartwright

Mary Doria Russell
394 pages, hardcover: $26.
Random House, 2011.

Versatile novelist Mary Doria Rusell's captivating reimagining of the life of Doc Holliday ends before the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral, that eternal wellspring for Western novels and movies. In her new book, Doc, Russell sees Holliday as more than a gambler and gunslinger, opening the novel with a dismissal of "the journalists of his day" who seized on the last few years of his life story and "embellished slim fact with fat rumor and rank fiction." Instead, she introduces us to a refined, educated Southern gentleman and skilled dentist whose path through life is distorted by his worsening tuberculosis.

Born in Georgia in 1851, Holliday earned his degree in dental surgery at 21, only to discover that he'd developed the same disease that killed his mother when he was 15. Forced to leave his beloved Georgia for a drier climate, Holliday moves to Texas, where he meets the woman who becomes his longtime lover, Kate Harony. In Russell's telling, she is the orphaned daughter of a Hungarian physician, "raised at the imperial court of Maximilian of Mexico" -- an educated firebrand who speaks Latin and French and works intermittently as a prostitute. Holliday describes her life as "a fairytale in reverse," not unlike his own illness-forced exile from the kind of privileged family that, as Russell notes in her afterword, helped inspire the magnolia-scented O'Haras and Wilkeses in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind.

Harony convinces Holliday to move to rough-and-tumble Dodge City, Kan. (a community created with "a single purpose: to extract money from Texas"). In Dodge, Holliday works as a dentist when his health allows, and as a gambler when he's sick or business is slow. He's particularly sympathetic toward decent people forced to violate civilized norms to survive, especially prostitutes; as he tells his new friend, Wyatt Earp, "all these girls have some story." Russell suggests that Holliday's gambling and gunfighting are largely the adjustments he is forced to make due to his illness and the exigencies of life on the frontier.

Russell has fashioned an engrossing story out of the difficult hand Doc Holliday was dealt. In vigorous prose, and with great wit and fascinating historical detail, she conveys the distinct inner life of each of her flawed, endearing characters.

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