- Random House, 416 pp.
Dying Man’s Hand
It was only in the Wild West of Hollywood that law-abiding frontiersmen wore white hats, while horse thieves, jayhawkers and hired guns wore black ones.
Mortality, rather than outward displays of morality, governed the daily lives of people trying to earn their bread or strike it rich in the West. This is particularly the case in Mary Doria Russell’s new novel, Doc. With tuberculosis eating away his lungs, Dr. John Henry Holliday heeds the call of “Go West” in the hope that the reputedly healthy climate, dry air and sunshine, of Texas will restore his health.
When that fails, the cultured young dentist from Georgia heads to the boomtown of Dodge City, Kansas. Living conditions are no healthier there. But Dodge, the railroad depot that was the destination of Texas cattle companies herding their vast throngs of Longhorns to market, is a Mecca for high-stakes gambling. With nothing to lose but his life — already hanging by a thread — Holliday had taken up gambling to make ends meet in Texas. Despite being shot in the leg while dealing faro, Holliday has a facility for daring the odds and winning most of the time — at cards.
The year is 1878. It is the high-noon of the brief, mythic era when cattle company economics ruled the West. For six months each year, Dodge City is over-run with high-spirited cowboys ready for a good time. Saloon owners, musical comedy actors, pimps and prostitutes and organizers of every form of gambling from billiard halls to boxing matches are ready, willing and able to oblige.
Dr. Holliday “follows the money” to Dodge City in the company of a lady of questionable morals named Maria Katarina Harony. Now known as Kate Elder, Holliday’s companion has other attributes as well. Kate is a handsome young woman with bewitching eyes, a love for music and literature, impeccable manners, when it suits her, and a short-fused temper when it doesn’t. She is a good match for “Doc” Holliday.
Doc and Kate are quite a pair in Dodge. High-livers, Doc and Kate pool their resources, plying their respective professions, dentistry and sexual gratification, along with all-night poker games. They make friends with two of the town’s lawmen, the gregarious Morgan Earp and his taciturn brother Wyatt. The Earp’s brother, James, runs a respectable brothel in town. Gambling and drinking are no disgrace either in Dodge, so Doc and Kate fit right in.
To this already crowded cast of historical characters, Russell ads a number of fictional ones, all drawn in by the thread of Doc Holiday’s sensitive regard for his fellow mortals. Readers of Russell’s sci-fi novels, particularly The Sparrow, should expect to encounter a motley crew of supporting players. Russell does not disappoint.
There is Jau Dong-Sing, “China Joe,” who runs a laundry and bath house, the proceeds of which he quietly invests into real estate so as not to excite the envy and animosity of Dodge’s white male establishment. An Austrian Jesuit priest, Father Alexander von Angensperg, provides a spiritual dimension to the novel, another of Russell’s trademark concerns. A missionary at the St. Francis Mission School for Indians, Father von Angensperg, makes periodic pilgrimages to Dodge to minister to the souls of German immigrants.
Von Angensperg arrives in Dodge to find out that one of his favorite students from St. Francis, John Horse Saunders, has been murdered. Just 17 years-old, Johnnie Saunders, part Indian, part African-American, was bludgeoned and left to die in a burning barn. The “second best faro dealer” in Dodge City, Saunders was bankrolled by Wyatt Earp, a dubious move by a lawman, even in frontier Kansas.
Wyatt had quietly provided the capital needed by Saunders, splitting the gambling profits between them. Wyatt’s plan is to use his share to buy a racing horse. Everybody in Dodge is making money hand-over-fist. Wyatt, who knows horseflesh, hopes to make his fortune at the race track.
Then the corpse of Johnnie Saunders is found in the charred debris of a burnt-out stable. Saunders’ faro “bank,” including Wyatt Earp’s money, is missing. A short time later, the lawman is nearly gunned down on the muddy streets of Dodge.
All the while, Doc Holliday is taking in these events. From his dentist’s office in Dodge, Doc closely follows the politics in the Kansas town. He is a student of human nature and Dodge City provides plenty of character types to stimulate his interest. One of them, an Army officer named Elijah Grier, merits special attention. Grier had served with Sherman in Georgia, a point which would hardly endear him to Doc. Grier is also a steady loser in the gambling halls of Dodge and it is his fleet-footed mount that Wyatt wants to buy. When Saunders’ faro money goes missing and Grier keeps his horse, Doc begins to get suspicious.
In Doc, Russell inverts the usual dramatic structure of a tale of the Old West. Gunfights are few and generally settle nothing, except to add corpses to the cemetery on Boot Hill. The great theme of bringing “law and order” to the frontier is a fraud. The real legal code of Kansas that Wyatt and Morgan Earp are expected to uphold when the cattlemen ride into Dodge is “don’t kill the customers.”
It is the daily struggle of life that blights the lives of Russell’s protagonists. Ill-health and empty wallets are a greater danger than a Cheyenne raid. For Doc Holliday, the enemy is tuberculosis, a cruel, cunning disease that truly consumes him, body and — steadily, stealthily — soul. During a brief period of remission, Doc rides out to the surrounding prairie and experiences an epiphany of what life, during a good spell, can offer.
Swinging easily onto the saddle, sitting comfortably fifteen and a half hands above the earth, gazing at the country south of the Arkansas, John Henry found himself engulfed by a sense of his own well-being. He was grateful to Kate for insisting that they come to Dodge and glad the two of them were working things out. He was pleased that he had made friends here and elated to have returned at last to a useful profession that provided him with so much satisfaction.
For the first time since coming to the West, Doc feels healthy enough to make some plans for the future. Sitting astride his horse, taking in the “quiet delights of a prairie dawn,” Doc is filled with resolve “to cheat the Fates of entertainment,” at least for a while. But he is too much of a realist to think that he has beaten tuberculosis for good. Having stared death in the face, Doc is possessed of the ultimate in human self-knowledge.
Everyone dies. He knew how, if not when.
Doc sorts out the mystery of Johnnie Saunders’ death and in a climatic round of poker deals an ingenious measure of frontier justice. Fittingly, since Russell uses the nuances and terminology of Old West gambling as the matrix of her narrative, it is a poker game rather than a fusillade from Colt “Peacemaker” revolvers that clinches her story.
A “shoot-out,” of course, did determine the fate of Doc Holliday. The fabled O.K. Corral Gunfight in 1881 placed Doc in the history books, usually in a less than favorable light. Can a gun duel, lasting less than minute, determine the way that an entire life is remembered?
Russell is determined to show that there was more to the life of Doc Holliday than bullet-riddled bodies sprawled in an alley in Tombstone, Arizona. Even if the episode that drives the narrative of Doc is a fictional one, Russell’s positive assessment of Doc Holliday deserves to be taken seriously.
A very sick man when he came to Dodge City in 1878, John Henry Holliday battled tuberculosis, the greatest killer of the 19th century. All the while, he tried to live life to its fullest. That may not be the stuff of legend or the script of a 1950’s horse opera, but in the thoughtful prose of Mary Doria Russell it makes for a moving and memorable portrait of the American West and one of its most enigmatic heroes.