Doc by Mary Doria Russell – Book Review

Doc by Mary Doria Russell
Published by Random House

You may think that you know Doc Holliday, doesn’t everyone? He is one of the most well-known denizens of the Wild West, a hard-living man famous for the shootout at the OK Corral. A roughneck, what else is there to know about him?

And yet, the real Doc Holliday, John Henry Holliday, was not the uncouth man of legend, but a Southern aristocrat who saw his family lose nearly everything in the Civil War, and had his own hopes of a living ruined by the Panic of 1873. He was a witty man, extremely well-educated and well-read. He might have been perfectly happy to remain in Georgia, or even move up North where he went to college, except for disease which would change his life, his future:

He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness. -p. 1

It was this tuberculosis, the same disease which killed his beloved mother, that forced John Henry away from his beloved uncle and extended family. There were rumors of people who moved to the American West going into remission, being cured by the drier weather, and so he had to try it. Trained as a dentist, he moved West, only to bed confronted by the reality of the Panic of 1873, which left most people without any extra money for dental work.

It certainly wasn’t John Henry’s fault that he couldn’t make a living at his profession. No reasonable person would have thought so, but who is reasonable at twenty-two? -p. 19

Unable to sustain himself with his chosen profession, and feeling terrible about that fact, John Henry consigned himself to a life as an often drunk professional gambler who practiced dentistry on the side, earning his nickname around that time from his passionate live-in whore (this was actually her job) girlfriend, Kate.

Just one paragraph into Doc I already knew why Mary Doria Russell is beloved by so many readers. That first excerpt I quoted is the opening of the book. As an opening it is beautifully written, and immediately engaging. It causes the reader to feel sympathy for John Henry by the first comma. The second sentence provides the chills, and the third the curiosity of what the one season of happiness was, and why the rest of his existence didn’t qualify as such.

More impressive, though, than the stellar opening, is the fact that Doria Russell manages to keep up the interest and quality of writing throughout the roughly 400 page book. Her writing remains amazing, and her characters are all fascinating, even the most bit players. There is not a particularly steady flow of time, but that works to Doc’s advantage, glossing over the less interesting parts of history, using just enough exposition to impart what is necessary for the story, before getting back to the real meat of it all.

If I have one disappointment about Doc, though, it is where Mary Doria Russell chose to end her story. The majority of the action ends as John Henry and the Earp brothers are deciding to move from Dodge, Kansas to Arizona, where they will become so famous in Tombstone. Doria Russell has so much insight into Doc’s life and fleshes him out so well as a character, I would have really appreciated her take on the situation at the OK Corral, because I cannot quite seem to get my head around exactly what happened. Still, this is a minor qualm, because the book in no way feels unfinished where she does end it. On the contrary, it is a very natural ending point, and to tell that story as well would probably add another 200 pages on, at least.

Doc is one of those books that will make you wonder why you haven’t read more from its author. When I finished it I was ready to drop everything else and read every word that Mary Doria Russell had ever written. If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do just that.

Very highly recommended.

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