“He began to die when he was 21,” Russell writes at the opening, “but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle.” The whole novel takes place in the shadow of that death sentence, which Dr. John Henry Holliday postponed with a rough mixture of fury, gentility and bourbon. Born in Georgia in 1851 with a cleft palate, Holliday had already beaten the odds just by surviving infancy, but his wealthy mother was determined that her son would speak like a gentleman and receive the classical education his fierce intellect deserved. He grew up on Virgil and Homer, and from beginning to end Russell casts his tragic life not in terms of Old West myths, but of those far older heroes who were his boyhood models. “The Fates pursued him from the day he first drew breath,” she writes, “howling for his delayed demise.”
How this smart, talented young man constructed his life under these deadly conditions is the true subject of Russell’s affecting novel. Her Doc Holliday is a person of great pride and Southern refinement who finds his ideals shredded by illness and economic necessity. Trained in dentistry (as opposed to medicine, which at the time was for quacks), he’s determined to relieve the suffering so common among people who have never seen a toothbrush. Problem is, he can make a year’s wages in a good night of card playing, and alcohol is the only thing that keeps those razor-sharp coughs from slicing up his lungs. You can’t help but feel your throat clench in sympathy as he strains for breath.
Although it sometimes reaches back to pre-
Civil War days and refers to events ahead in the 20th century, “Doc” focuses on Dodge City, Kan., in 1878. Russell captures this wildest of the Wild West towns in all its mud-stained virility. “Front Street was alive with young men,” she writes. “Sauntering, staggering. Laughing, puking. Shouting in fierce strife or striking lewd whispered bargains with girls in bright dresses. They were giddy with liberty, these boys, free to do anything they could think of and pay for, unwatched by stern elders, unseen by sweethearts back home, unjudged by God, who had surely forsaken this small, bright hellhole in the immense, inhuman darkness that was west Kansas.” This is a town caught in the swift confluence of national changes. Brawling saloons and accommodating whorehouses are locked in a death match with new forces of respectability and temperance, all greased with astronomical sums of money. The “city had a single purpose,” Russell writes, “to extract wealth from Texas. Drovers brought cattle north and got paid cash. Dodge sent them home in possession of neither.”
Into this explosive, oversexed, alcoholic town rides a collection of characters who need no help from Tinseltown to fill their boots. (At the front of the book, there’s an intimidating list of more than 60 players, but don’t let that scare you off.) Russell moves gracefully along two intertwined story lines. One involves Holliday, “snake-slender and casual in fresh-pressed linen the color of cream,” who comes to Dodge for the climate and hopes to set up a new dental practice. His extraordinary companion is Kate Harony, a formidable Hungarian prostitute with a classical education to match Doc’s (he’s particularly taken with her Latin). Their tumultuous relationship, a mixture of scheming, love and intellectual repartee, serves as the emotional heart of the novel, as they both struggle to be something neither his health nor wallet will allow.
Woven through that sad, romantic tale is the story of Doc’s friend, a young lawman named Wyatt Earp, who “had not smiled since 1855, and didn’t like to say much more than six or seven words in a row.” Drawn to Dodge by the presence of his brothers — one a bailiff, the other a brothel manager — Wyatt takes a job as the deputy marshal only after getting the mayor to agree to his terms: “Somebody breaks the law, I don’t care whose friend he is, I’m taking him in,” he says. “There’s got to be one law for everybody, or I can’t do this job.” In a town that runs on alcohol and corruption, that will prove to be a dangerous principle. But then he turns to his new staff and lays down the rules: “You see any weapon at all, bash whoever’s carrying it. Don’t argue. Don’t explain. Don’t wait.” (John Wayne claimed he based his film persona on Earp, who worked in Hollywood in the early 20th century.)
What’s so beautiful about this novel is the way Russell dismantles rickety legends while reconstructing her own larger-than-life characters on a firmer foundation of historical fact and psychological insight. Playing subtly with the patter of those old westerns, her voice alternately pays homage and pokes fun at them, picking up the cowboy accent, plumbing the real heroism of these men, and enjoying their capacity for tenderness and corniness.
And she’s not content to follow the arc of the old story lines either. The murder of an affable black teenager — one of her few inventions here — provides a thin wire on which to hang the plot, but the mystery of that crime fades into the background through most of these chapters. As though it’s a corrective to 150 years of shoot-’em-up westerns, “Doc” remains daringly free of quick draws or showdowns. Russell can choreograph a tavern brawl or a trigger-finger card game, but far more of this engaging novel is taken up with the day-to-day struggle to keep the peace, encourage one’s friends, and quiet the shame that haunts Doc and Wyatt, two very different men who respect each other’s implacable discipline. While exploring the fluid state of post-Civil War race relations, the seesawing economic conditions of the United States, and the precarious fortunes of sex workers, she keeps the story moving almost entirely by the force of her sensitive characterizations. The gun-slinging confrontations are violent but brief and always marked by Russell’s disarming reminders of the combatants’ pedestrian hopes and concerns. In the middle of one vicious fistfight, Doc yells to Wyatt: “For the love of God! Your teeth!”
I’m in awe of how confidently Russell rides through this familiar territory, takes control and remakes all its rich heroism and tragedy. Clearly, there’s a new sheriff in town. Given her propensity to strike out into radically different subjects, I suspect she’ll mosey on to someplace entirely different next time. But how I wish she’d settle here for a spell and give us a sequel.
Charles, The Post’s fiction editor, reviews books every Wednesday.