No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

2017/10: Doc -- Mary Doria Russell

Belle Wright undoubtedly believed that his courtesy to Johnnie Sanders and China Joe stemmed from an admirable democratic conviction that they were every bit as good as he was. In reality, he thought himself no better than they: a significant distinction. It was not a surfeit of brotherly love that informed John Henry Holliday's egalitarianism. It was an acute awareness of the depths of disgrace into which he himself had fallen. [loc. 3214]
Mary Doria Russell, author of one of my very favourite SF novels (The Sparrow) and a number of other books that I have enjoyed and / or admired, has turned her attention to the Western. Sort of. Doc is a novel about a single year in the life of John Henry 'Doc' Holliday, mostly famous for his involvement with Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral. This novel is set well before that, but the shadow of Tombstone -- literally and figuratively, since Holliday was dying slowly from tuberculosis for all of his adult life -- looms over the events of 1878 in Dodge City, Kansas.

The novel's structured like a poker game, and framed by passages of more prosaic biography to set the scene. Instead of (as well as?) celebrating the male friendships and loyalties that are the focus of many Westerns, Doc deals with the other people who matter to Doc: his girlfriend Kate Harony, a well-educated Hungarian who's fallen on hard times and turned to prostitution; Johnnie Sanders, a half-black, half-Native American youth whose murder Doc investigates; Jau Dong-Sing (known as China Joe), a Chinese man who has made a life for himself in Dodge but is well aware of the perils of being an outsider; and Father Alexander von Angensperg, whose work with the Native Americans in the Jesuit mission school provides background for Johnnie's story. (He's also one of the very few people to whom Doc can talk about music and literature.)

As in previous novels, Russell's characterisation carries the story. Their emotions and motivations are revealed simply and with compassion: they have a ring of truth, whether or not they're based on historical fact. There are authorial interjections that highlight turning points in Doc's life and remind us of Doc's eventual fate. Also as in previous novels, faith matters: Father Alex's confident hope of a miraculous cure, and Doc's own silent prayer as he plays Beethoven: "John Henry Holliday was praying too, just as earnestly and to any god who might listen. Now. Now. Now. Take me now. Now: with this music beneath his hands. Now: while he was still a gentle man who might have made his mother proud. Now: while beauty could still beat back the blind and brutal disease that was eating him alive." [loc. 6779]

I cannot recommend reading this novel whilst suffering from a painful chest infection: the descriptions of Doc's tuberculosis are uncomfortable at the best of times. But I do recommend Doc highly: it's a thoughtful examination of a life, told from a different perspective than the familar macho-Western mythologising.

Looking forward to reading Epitaph, a kind of sequel, if it ever makes it to Kindle ...

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