Friday, June 28, 2013

Doc: A Review

I grew up on Westerns. My Saturdays, when there was no one available to play with, were full of them: The Lone Ranger (yes, I will go see the new movie, but I'm already thinking they should have called it Tonto), The Rifleman, The Big Valley, Rawhide, Bonanza. I also watched Gunsmoke, The Wild Wild West, and Alias Smith and Jones (which I loved enough to show my kids not too long ago), but those weren't in the Saturday lineup. None of that translated into reading Westerns, though; I don't really know why.

With that in mind, I was quite excited about Mary Doria Russell writing a Western.
And I wasn't disappointed.

As may be obvious from the title, Doc is about Doc Holliday. Well, obvious as long as you know the book is a Western. After all, what other figure is there from the American West who is called Doc? What you may also think is obvious is that the book deals with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, perhaps even uses that as its climax, but you would be wrong.

So much of the "history" we know about Doc Holliday is centered around that one gunfight, a gunfight that lasted approximately 30 seconds, but it doesn't tell us anything about Doc. About why he was there. It doesn't tell us anything beyond the persistent legend that says that Doc Holliday was a gambler, gunman, and scoundrel. That he was just shy of a villain. Which was the belief for nearly a century after his death (helped in no small part by the sensationalized stories of Bat Masterson who believed in the story more than the truth).

Doc: A Novel does tell us why he was there without bothering to actually deal with the shootout itself. Heck, it's not even set in Tombstone. Doc tells the story of what was probably the only happy time Holliday had once he moved west to fight his tuberculosis. It deals with how he fell in with the Earps and, specifically, Wyatt, because you can't really tell a story about Doc that doesn't include Wyatt. The interesting thing about that is that it wasn't really Wyatt who was Doc's friend. Not that he wasn't, but it was Morgan Earp that Doc was close to. Once you know that, you can understand everything that happened in Tombstone and, more specifically, what happened after.

At its heart, Doc is a character piece. There is a plot, but it's very soft. The book isn't about the plot, so to speak; it's about the characters. Russell excels at characters, and, I have to say, this book is about as close as you'll get to feeling like you were right there with Wyatt and Doc and all the other Earps. I don't think you necessarily care about what's going to happen in a book like this; you just want to know what's going to happen to the characters. And there's a real difference in those two things.

We hear a lot, these days, about starting in the middle of the action and getting on to the story (the action) and keeping things fast-paced (action) and all of that, but, when I think back about my favorite books, I never remember the action; I remember the characters. It's the characters that captivate me. Sure, books that are full of action can be a lot of fun to read, but, if there's no connection with the characters, then those action (plot) oriented books are (for me) like candy. There's just no substance there, and they don't stay with me. Or, even, interest me much anymore.

If you want to walk the dusty streets of Dodge City with Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, listen in the conversations they're having, watch Doc do his dentistry during the only time in his life when he was really able to practice it; this is the book for you. If you just want to get to the gunfights and the shootouts, you should go watch Tombstone.

Note: This is probably the best written of Russell's books, which is a considerable accomplishment considering the books she's written, but I think The Sparrow is still my favorite. In fact, I'm sure it is. However, that may all change when the sequel (currently called Epitaph) to Doc comes out; that one will deal with O.K. Corral.


  1. Never really liked Westerns. I'm definitely not watching that Lone Ranger movie what with the casual racism of casting Johnny Depp as the Native American. It's sickening to do that in this day and age.

  2. My husband is constantly quoting, 'I'm your huckleberry.' I have a feeling he would take an interest in the unique take you describe here.

  3. My knowledge of Westerns is severely lacking. I should work on that. My favorite Western film is A Fistful of Dollars, which is based on a samurai movie (Yojimbo) which is based on a hard-boiled detective novel (The Glass Key or Red Harvest, depending on whom you ask).

  4. I read The Sparrow, which was kind of disturbing. I'm up for another book by this author, maybe this is it.

  5. I agree with you about characters. I remember them and not the events. That said, my preference is for a book to show me the character by his actions rather than describe the character to me.

  6. Never really been into Westerns, but I have to agree on the character aspects of writing...that's what I tend to remember about books I love.

  7. I read and liked The Sparrow, so I am surprised that she would write a western, but intrigued: good pick.

  8. I know almost nothing about Tombstone or the shootout, other than what you absorb through growing up in America. So I learned a lot just reading your review.

    What I'm impressed by is how thoroughly your enthusiasm comes out in this review. Like PT, I don't care much for Westerns -- but your review made me want to check this book out. I'll add it to my wish list.

  9. PT: I want to want to not go to Lone Ranger, but I can't help it. I even had Lone Ranger action figures when I was a kid (which are worth quite a lot these days, except my mom got rid of mine).

    Suze: I actually liked Costner's Wyatt Earp better than Tombstone, but Kilmer was very good. Russell actually said in something I read that Kilmer's Doc will always be her favorite.

    TAS: Oh, yeah, those are great movies. Have you seen the whole trilogy?

    Kerry: The Sparrow is an incredible book. I resonate with its theme.

    David: Oh, Russell never just describes the characters. Everything is told through their actions. Like Wyatt on the bridge staring down the cattle drivers. There are some powerful moments in the book; the book is just not about those moments.

    tfwalsh: As with much of what Russell does, the Western part of it is just the setting, like in The Sparrow with the sci-fi part being part of the setting.

    Laoch: She doesn't tend to stick with the same genre. And she doesn't really have to since none of her work is actually about the genre she's writing in.

    Briane: For you, I still think you should read The Sparrow and Children of God, first.

  10. Westerns were HUGE growing up at my house. Of course, it was the 50's/60's and I had seven brothers so make sense, yes? What about Sugar Foot, or Cheyenne, or, the best of them all, Maverick? (not the movie - the real deal TV series :)
    As for Doc, your review makes me curious. I will check it out. Thanks.

  11. Graciewilde: I've never heard of Sugar Foot. I think I probably watched some episodes of Cheyenne, but I don't remember them, just the name of the show. I know that I watched Maverick from time to time, but I also don't remember it, as it was not one of the regular shows that I watched.

  12. Thanks so much for this! I've been researching the west recently and I'll have to take a look!

  13. I actually really like character studies- if the book has a real strong, gripping character I can forgive the lack of plot and still get pulled into the story. This sounds like one of those books. The old west can be quite fascinating as a setting too. I can see why you liked it so much!

  14. Sugar Foot, Sugar Foot,
    easy loping, cattle roping,
    Sugar Foot

    Yeah, that song is still in my head.

  15. moha: You should. She's a great writer.

    jaybird: The old west is fascinating. Not only because it lasted for such a short while yet persists to be such a huge part of our cultural heritage.

    Graciewilde: The song that with me is the one from Rawhide.

  16. Yes, we have watched all of them. The other two are good but the first is my favorite.

  17. TAS: It's been long enough, now, that I no longer remember which one I liked best, only that the third one was substantially different from the other two.