What’s up, Doc?
Have you noticed? Mary Doria Russell is a new favorite at our cabin–and I add Doc, her latest title, to my list of great reads. Unlike the famous movies about the shoot-out at the OK Corral, and the aftermath, this story explores Doc Holliday’s life before he moves to Arizona with the Earp brothers and their women compadres.These years show Doc in the center of a spiderweb of diverse relationships, as a consummate reader of people, and a cultured southern aristocrat who opened himself to the real stories of individuals from all walks of life and parts of the world.
This story defies conventional contemporary storytelling advice in many ways–and never failed to intrigue and enlighten as Russell rolled out her scenes to cast a little lamplight on the famous gunslinger. The first questions to set up a plot–What did Doc most want?–have surprisingly mundane answers. Family, and to be useful. and life. What made him happiest? Kindness, and kindred curiosity, and the emotional resonance of classical music.
The book’s structure was based on card games and gambling–and served to highlight an interesting point about the volatility of the world before our dependence on multiple insurance policies. What you had to pull you through slim times was the family of solid friends you might create if you had no family at hand. Russell twice turned an expected understanding of gratitude around. 1) Doc expressed his idea of ‘selfish’ motivation for hosting John Horse Sanders’ wake and funeral: that he had taken the boy for his own, without John even knowing it. 2) Morgan echoed that sentiment to explain why the Earps were so dedicated to Doc’s care during his illnesses: that they had claimed him for their brotherhood. The costs of these claims were insignificant compared to the perceived benefits.
The Omniscient point-of-view is used again here, but with clear authorial intrusions that change the narrative feel almost to reportorial mode. The rhythms, though, carry echoes of Greek tragedy, and certain conventions, like the Fates, are specifically named. The prefacing quotation from Ernest Hemingway clues us in from the start: “This book is fiction, but there is always a chance that such a work of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.” The frame for the story is thereby set, and despite the potential for such techniques to hold a reader at distance, Russell’s power as a storyteller overcomes that pitfall without a second glance. One particular scene still brings me to tears simply remembering its emotion (in the chapter, Playing for Keeps). Reading its full beauty, its immense sense of life lived to the best even given a bad hand, is by itself worth the price of the book. The cover art magically, surprisingly, conveys the passion and pathos of that scene. At a glance, I can return to it all.