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.