Friday, December 16, 2011

Review - Doc: A Novel

I enjoy the stories of the "wild west" and early American expansionism but I am far from being historically knowledgable. I have a lot of fun with a good western movie and as a kid I ran around playing Cowboys and Indians (I know it's not the "politically correct" term, but that's what we called it). I knew a little about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the rest, but what I knew came from myths, legends and a couple of movies (I absolutely loved Val Kilmer's portrayal). I've hiked up to Doc Holliday's grave in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. I don't know a lot of details about the Wild West beyond what I've seen in movies, but I am very intrigued by the stories and adventures.

I was intrigued by this biopic novel "Doc: A Novel" and excited get a copy from Amazon Vine. I was stoked to get to know a bit more about this enigmatic character. The author, Mary Doria Russell, apparently did a considerable amount of research, not only into the myths and legends surrounding Doc Holliday but also into family histories, letters, journals and other resources to get a more personal view into Doc. While the novel contains a number of fictionalized events and interactions, it is grounded in fact and works to provide an intriguing picture of how Doc may have acted and interacted in the Wild West.

The style of the novel was interesting. It was divided into sections which were labeled according to the different segments of a hand of cards (the shuffle, the ante, the deal, etc) and each section of the book built on the previous sections accordingly. The writing also played with the assumption that the readers knew at least something of Doc Holliday. As such, the book not only foreshadowed certain events but explicitly called to attention some events in Doc's life (such as the fact that he would die of tuberculosis or that he'd be involved in a shootout at the O.K. Corral).

The book follows Doc's life from birth to death. The accounts of his childhood starts with the interesting historical insight into his birth with a cleft palette and the experimental remedy to help him. We learn about early dentistry. We learn about Doc's passion for learning and music. He was still very young when he exhibited the symptoms of tuberculosis and he moved West with the hope that the drier climate would do him good.

He moves around briefly before we find the setting of the majority of the book: Dodge City, Kansas. By then he's met his companion Kate and found himself very adept at cards. He meets the Earp brothers, Bat Masterson and others. He works hard to get a dental practice up and running while still making most of his money through gambling.

Rather than being a simple biography outlining events in Doc's life, the novel sets up a fun little fictional mystery involving Wyatt Earp, a large amount of borrowed money, a crooked card player, and a murder. This particular plot arc is subtly woven throughout the center of the book. While it's definitely not the heart of the novel, it is the one main story arc that stays alive the longest and it is interesting enough to do so in a natural fashion.

As a side note, from a content standpoint, this book would receive an "R" rating for language, violence and suggestive situations….with most of that being due to language. Cursing is pervasive in the book and at many points it was a bit abrasive for my tastes. The violence was actually fairly minimal, especially considering the setting. And I was actually relieved to find the "suggestive situations" to be fairly minimal as well and definitely not explicit or overt…which again was surprising considering the presence of brothels and of the sexually free nature of Doc's girlfriend Kate.

Personally, I really enjoyed each of the shorter vignettes that make up the overall book. The characters and stories are very vivid and fun. Their personalities are distinctive and interesting and made for a very fun read. I especially loved the demeanor of Doc. He's presented as being so smooth and unflappable. He's very knowledgable and superior to those around him and yet he is filled with respect and humility which he freely gives to anyone until they prove themselves unworthy of it.

I still don't know the distinction between fact and fiction, but I have a better picture for Doc Holliday and, even though I know it's fictionalized, it feels very 3-dimensional and realistic. The course language and content make it hard for me to recommend this to everybody. If the language were toned down a bit, I might rate it higher. If you've got a passion or even just a strong interest for the Wild West or Doc Holliday, you will likely enjoy this novel.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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