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Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell

Doc: A Novel (edition 2012)

by Mary Doria Russell (Author)

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1,13015210,919 (4.12)609
Title:Doc: A Novel
Authors:Mary Doria Russell (Author)
Info:Ballantine Books (2012), Edition: Reprint, 411 pages
Collections:Read 2019, Read but unowned
Tags:Historical Fiction, Dodge City, 1800's

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Doc by Mary Doria Russell

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I was blown away by this book - I didn't think I could find another historical character as deep and nuanced as Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell, but I did in Russell's Doc Holliday. Doc has all the trappings of a wild western - drinking, gambling, cowboys, bars, brothels - but populated with sensitively drawn and psychologically complex characters who in their own tight-lipped western way do some serious thinking about violence between fathers and sons, treatment of women, racial hatreds, etc. Harsh as life is in Russell's Dodge City, she finds lots of dry humor and charm in her characters, especially in Doc Holliday, Kate, and Wyatt and Morgan Earp. This is the first work of fiction I've listened to on audio - up to this point I've only listened to memoirs because the theatricality of the audio fiction I've sampled was off-putting. But I think Mark Bramhall did a superb job with Doc's Georgia drawl and the western twang of the Earps and the omniscient narrator. I wasn't quite as taken with his women, and some of the minor characters had a tendency to sound like Gabby Hayes or Walter Brennan, but considering the huge cast of characters he had to work with, he did an amazing job. ( )
  badube | Mar 6, 2019 |
"You know how people say, Don't borrow trouble? Well," said Morgan, "I guess it's the opposite of that. Doc is borrowing happiness." — Mary Doria Russell, “Doc”

Mary Doria Russell's magnificent 2011 novel “Doc” may be fiction but at times it reads like biography. It reads like truth, or at least like a truth we would like to believe. Biographies of John Henry "Doc" Holliday, especially the earliest ones, painted him as more gunfighter than dentist, more drunken gambler than polished Southern gentleman. Russell seeks to set the record straight.

I first learned Russell was writing a novel about Doc Holliday when I heard her speak several years ago in Columbus. She mentioned, as she does briefly in the novel, that Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone with the Wind,” was his second cousin. What's more, Mitchell may have modeled Ashley Wilkes after him, she said. The refined Doc Holliday was as out of place in Dodge City as Wyatt Earp would have been in Atlanta. He settled there under the mistaken belief the prairie air would cure his tuberculosis, from which he was slowing dying. He drank because it relieved his coughing. He gambled because it paid better than dentistry and didn't require as steady a hand. He carried a gun, even if illegally, because he often won at cards and was wary of sore losers.

Russell blames Bat Masterson for starting and spreading the stories about Doc Holliday being a notorious gunfighter. Masterson doesn't fare very well in “Doc.” Nor does Kate Harony, the well educated Hungarian prostitute who was Doc's on-again, off-again mistress. The author blames Kate for much of what went wrong in Doc's life, including the Gunfight at OK Corral, which is not dealt with directly in this novel. It was her idea that they move to the dusty prairie town of Dodge City.

The Earp brothers, Wyatt, Morgan and James, are painted with almost as much affection as Russell paints Holliday. James and his wife run a brothel where the women are protected and treated with dignity. Morgan is a bookish young man, a friend to all, who views Doc as his mentor. Wyatt comes through as tough yet almost saintly. He enforces the law equally for all, whatever the consequences, attends church and avoids liquor. After his first dental appointment with Doc Holliday, he at first refuses the free toothbrush offered, thinking it must be a bribe.

There are mysteries in the plot, yet they are hardly necessarily, for it is the characters that actually move the story along. Even those who know the history will want to read Russell's version of it.

For all his trials with declining health, an often angry Kate and the false stories spread by Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday makes the most of his life in Russell's novel. When happiness eludes him, he feeds off that of others. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Jan 9, 2019 |
Very well written and even better imagined. I admire and appreciate the way the story/stories were structured and the characters' inter-relationships brought to life . The author breathes life into legends . ( )
  nkmunn | Nov 17, 2018 |
I love MDR as an author so much. This was an intense portrait of Doc Holliday in the late 1870s, before the OK Corral and the most famous history, and it seems like it was extensively researched and attempts to demythologize Holliday, the Earps, and the women around them. Occasionally Russell lampshades this by mentioning how those who outlive the OK Corral have interviews with the press and how the yellow press loved the Wild West myth as compared to the reality of Dodge City, Tombstone, et cetera. Most of what we know about the Wild West is untrue, and while clearly quite a bit of this is fictional, too, it's such a humane and human portrait (much like Russell's other books) that it FEELS true. ( )
  jeninmotion | Sep 27, 2018 |
This novel is a rather different look at the life of John Henry "Doc" Holliday, famous (or infamous) friend and ally of the famous (or infamous) Earp brothers. The shootout at the OK Corral is epilogue, not centerpiece. After telling the tale of Holliday's upbringing in Georgia and his education as a dentist on the recommendation of his doctor uncle, who felt that medicine was becoming the realm of quackery while dentistry was becoming ever more scientific, the book focuses on what is presented as his one happy summer as an adult: the summer he met the Earp brothers in Dodge City, Kansas.

The new-minted dentist John Henry Holliday begins a promising young practice in Atlanta, but before too long comes to the painful realization that he's suffering from the same consumption (tuberculosis) that killed his mother. His uncle, Doctor Holliday, recommends that he move to the hot, dry southwest, and helps him locate a practice to join in Texas. All is well for a few, brief months--and then the Panic of 1873 happens. The dental practice can barely support its owner, and Holliday is out of a job. He gradually starts to support himself by gambling, and after a few years of sinking deeper and deeper into this life, he meets Kate Haroney, a smart, educated, former minor aristocrat who lost her entire family and position and is now supporting herself as a whore.

This is a partnership that will last, off and on, for the next decade, and it's also what brings Doc Holliday to Dodge City, where he meets the Earp brothers. And this is the meat of the story that Russell is telling, the story of the summer when Doc thought consumption might be loosening its grip on him, starts up a dental practice again, and forges a friendship with the Earp brothers, especially Morgan and Wyatt. It's the summer when Morgan and Wyatt get a painful education in politics, and the summer that another figure who will someday be famous, Bat Masterson, is also in Dodge and starting to fabricate the stories that will be the cornerstone of his fame. Russell gets us convincingly inside these heads, especially Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and builds a compelling account of how and why they made the choices that led them to that fateful thirty seconds in the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. We also see the beginning of Bat Masterson's myth-making about them, especially Doc Holliday, and the great distance between reality and myth in the story of Holliday's career as gambler and gunslinger.

One of the most touching strands in this story is Holliday's commitment to the positive good that professional dentistry can make in people's lives, freeing them from pain, even while it's clear to him that he'll never support himself with dentistry. In fact, it's his gambling that enables him to support his dentistry. Another, almost equally touching thread is Wyatt's rehabilitation of the horse Dick Naylor.

While there are gunfights and brawls in Doc, this is not a story of western gunslinging derring-do. This is a thoughtful and compelling look at some major icons of the American west, before they were famous and when they never expected that a gunfight would become the central event of their lives.

Highly recommended.

I received a free galley of this book for review from the publisher. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
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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.
For Art Nolan, who told me what Wyatt knew; for Eddie Nolan, who showed us what John Henry had to learn; for Alice McKey Holliday, who raised a fine young man; with thanks to Bob Price and Gretchen Batton.
First words
He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle.
Ignore it, deny it, or fight it, change was inevitable.
He was, he believed, no longer prone to the paralyzing bouts of homesickness that used to overwhelm him, when the yearning for all he had lost was so powerful that his only defense was to hold himself still until the sorrow washed through him and left him empty again.
The heat was building under the roof of the hotel, but the air was dry and not so hard on him as the murderous swelter of a Southern summer. He closed his eyes and listened to the strangely lulling concert that Dodge in daylight produced. The brassy bellow of cattle, the timpani of hooves. A cello section of bees buzzing in the hotel eaves. The steady percussion of hammers: carpenters shingling the roof of a little house going up on a brand-new street extending north from Front.
The sunset beyond shone vermilion through the dust.
If you knew what was what, you made damn sure there was money sewn into seams, or gems hidden in hems—
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Book description
The year is 1878, peak of the Texas cattle trade. The place is Dodge City, Kansas, a saloon-filled cow town jammed with liquored-up adolescent cowboys and young Irish hookers. Violence is random and routine, but when the burned body of a mixed-blood boy named Johnnie Sanders is discovered, his death shocks a part-time policeman named Wyatt Earp. And it is a matter of strangely personal importance to Doc Holliday, the frail twenty-six-year-old dentist who has just opened an office at No. 24, Dodge House.

And that is where the unlikely friendship of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp really begins—before Wyatt Earp is the prototype of the square-jawed, fearless lawman; before Doc Holliday is the quintessential frontier gambler; before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral links their names forever in American frontier mythology—when neither man wanted fame or deserved notoriety.

Authentic, moving, and witty, Mary Doria Russell’s fifth novel redefines these two towering figures of the American West.
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After the burned body of a mixed-blood boy, Johnnie Sanders, is discovered in 1878 Dodge City, Kansas, part-time policeman Wyatt Earp enlists the help of his professional-gambler friend Doc Holliday.

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