Doc: A Novel
Having read Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, I anticipated reading her new book Doc: A Novel. She did not disappoint.This is a novel inspired by history and the life of John Henry "Doc" Holliday. Not the legendary gambler and vicious gunslinger Doc Holliday but the person behind the euhemerism. I have not read accurate biographies of Holliday, but in an appendix to the book the author quotes her sources and they seem plausible. I will not comment the accuracy of Russell's research because all I knew about Holliday before reading this book came from old B movies, Territory by Emma Bull, and an old episode of Star Trek.The book begins with John Henry as a boy and a bright pupil in a prosperous family in Georgia. When they are ruined by the Civil War, his prospects seem dim, but an uncle supports his education until he graduates from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in Philadelphia with a D.D.S. degree (hence the nickname "Doc"). All seems to be well, but he contracts tuberculosis at the age of 21.Holliday moves west to find a more salubrious climate to allow him to recover from TB or at least live longer: first Texas, then Kansas, then ultimately Arizona. The rest is history.Well, not quite. Most of the book is set in Dodge City, Kansas, with the Earp brothers and a cast of tens, who are listed in the front of the book as "The Players". The author has put the names of her fictional characters in italics for the convenience of the reader. I am particularly pleased that Russell did not succumb to the pull of the Holliday legend: she only mentions the notorious shoot-out at the O.K. Corral in passing.Although I was able to be immersed in the narrative, what I notice on reflection is that there are so many binary polarities in this book: male/female, white/colored, capitalist/prole, respectable/lowdown, East/West, cultured/uncouth. The polarity I noticed most was literate/illiterate. Holliday, a missionary, a half-breed boy, and Holliday's mistress Kate Harony are informed by music and literature and can express themselves articulately. The inarticulate, such as Wyatt Earp, are sullen and resentful of those who inhabit a larger world in this sense. It certainly gives one a new opinion of Holliday to see him inquiring of a visiting missionary regarding whether the second symphony of Brahms has been published yet.Since the author says she has 'three degrees in anthropology' it isn't surprising to find structuralism throughout the book. However, her strength as a writer is characterization, and her characters are so alive that the academic scaffolding never overwhelms the narrative.Here is one of my favorite bits of characterization: "Belle Wright undoubtedly believed that Dr. Holliday's courtesy to Johnnie Saunders and China Joe stemmed from an admirable democratic conviction that they were every bit as good as he was. In reality, he thought himself no better than they: a significant distinction. It was not a surfeit of brotherly love that informed John Henry Holliday's egalitarianism. It was an acute awareness of the depths of disgrace into which he himself had fallen." I'm not sure if this is historically attested, but I find it profound and plausible.Doc is a good read with emotional and psychological depth that gives the reader a better perspective on an interesting period of history.