“Doc: A Novel,” by Mary Doria Russell, Random House.
“Bein’ born is craps,” dentist and gambler John Henry Holliday observes in “Doc,” a first-rate novel from Mary Doria Russell. “How we live,” he adds, “is poker.”
Russell’s fresh and lively portrait of young Doc Holliday is just as concerned with other people in Dodge City, Kan., as it is with the consumptive Southern gentleman who stepped off the train in their frontier town in the late 1870s. A few years later, he would enter American folklore as one of the gunmen alongside lawman Wyatt Earp at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz.
Before that deadly fracas, Earp was in Dodge City, too, though as a policeman firming up his reputation for no-nonsense law and order. The unlikely friendship that developed between Holliday and Earp, not yet in their 30s when they first met, is a key strain in a narrative that courses through a large set of delightfully rendered characters.
Life has dealt Holliday a bad hand. The tuberculosis that killed his mother is slowly choking him, yet he tries to establish a dental practice in Dodge City even though his skill at dealing faro could earn him far more. Taking money from drunken cowboys doesn’t stack up to the pride he feels when helping Earp and others overcome dental problems that, in the late 19th century, could easily lead to death or a lifetime of pain.
Labeling “Doc” a Western would be like calling “Crime and Punishment” a caper novel. With a friend struggling through Dostoyevsky’s tale, the erudite Holliday advises him not to worry about all those Russian names. “Just read,” Holliday says. “People are people in St. Petersburg or Dodge.”
In Dodge, they range from cowboys and prostitutes to businessmen and society ladies, from lawmen and their women to bankers and merchants, from a Jesuit priest to a Chinese laundryman. Their hopes and desires are no less varied. The constant is Russell’s narrative voice — rich, wise and insightful.
“Doc” is closer in tone to Larry McMurtry’s best novels than to familiar Holliday-Earp films like “My Darling Clementine” and “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Readers looking for Hollywood-style gunplay between Old West stereotypes best move on to more pulpy environs. Everyone else can settle in for a compelling study of young men and women playing out their lives as best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks,” University of Wisconsin Press.