Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Book Review: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell is one of my favorite contemporary authors of literary fiction. The only reason I bought the kindle copy of this book is because it is her latest novel. I never expected to become enthralled with a historical novel about Doc Holliday, of "gunfight at the OK Corral" fame. But I did and I bet you will too.

Those of you who are already fans  of Russell will not be disappointed. Those of you who have not yet read one of her books have a real treat in store.

Russell did a lot of historical research about John Henry Holliday, his life and times, and writes a compelling tale about the infamous gambler and gunman who began life as the son of a genteel Georgia family scrambling to survive in the post Civil War south. 

Holliday contracted tuberculosis at an early age and, having lost his mother to the same deadly disease at age 15, traveled west in an attempt to find a cure or remission. He appears in Dodge City, Kansas which was then a lawless cattle town where he takes up with the Earp brothers and Bat Masterson. Trained as a dentist, he tries to establish a practice there, but finds his skills at cards a surer way to support himself than dentistry.

One of Russell's greatest strengths is character depiction. Doc, his prostitute girlfriend Kate, the Earp brothers, Masterson and bevy of minor characters are believable and complex. 

For those of you who know the nickname of the author's book The Sparrow, ("Jesuits in Space"), you will recognize the character of Father Alexander von Angenspurg as the "Jesuit in the Wild West." I particularly loved the character of Father Alex, especially when he turned to the letters of Paul to Timothy to guide him as he replaced a beloved older priest at the Indian missions.

Another memorable character is Kate, the highly educated prostitute who was born to be a lady in waiting to the court of Maximillian in Mexico but had to learn to live by her wits and her body when that regime was overturned and she fled to the United States.

The novel focuses on Doc's "nightmare life in death"-- the long slow process of dying of tuberculosis in an era where there were no drugs to cure or control it. This gives the author many opportunities to explore Doc's varied responses to his mortal illness and its effects on those around him. At one point he tells Morgan Earp, "Flaubert tells us that three things are required for happiness: stupidity, selfishness and good health, I am," he told Morgan, "an unhappy man." Doc is neither stupid, selfish, and certainly is never in good health.

The story is beautifully written, dramatic, and philosophical. That's quite a  combination and is a testimony to the skill of the author. I give Doc: A Novel my highest recommendation.

I have previously reviewed these other novels by Mary Doria Russell: Dreamers of the Day, A Thread of Grace, and The Sparrow and The Children of God.


Robin said...

PERFECT timing! as we leave on vacation Saturday.

I was so afraid to click on this review, as I love her books and was afraid of being disappointed. But a Wild West Jesuit and Doc Holliday and everything else rolled into one book - sounds great.

Mary Doria Russell lives in the next suburb over and I heard her speak one day, about her research (yes, incredible) for Thread of Grace. She is charming as well as brilliant.

Robin said...

PS: Walked over to My Local Bookstore and bought the book, and learned that Mary Doria Russell is speaking at My Local Library, to which I can also walk, in early September!

Quotidian Grace said...

I'm jealous! Ask her what the subject of her next book will be. Inquiring minds want to know.