With this stunning incantation on the life of Doc Holliday, Olds solidifies the reputation he established with his debut about John Brown (Raising Holy Hell, 1995) as the Dark American Soothsayer.
By nature a poet with an extraordinary sensitivity to the sounds of words, Olds here sets out a biography of sorts: a character-chant that, like his first novel, makes use of contemporary news accounts, interviews both real and invented, fragments of poetry, excerpts from textbooks, and photographs that flavor the original writing as it deals out the tale of Doc Holliday’s life. “In the end, the object is always the same—to reconnoiter the poetry that lies at the heart of any history, to make the marrow sing,” he writes in an afterword. Olds approaches his subject first through themes, providing both a clinical and a personal account of the consumption diagnosed at 21 that finally killed Holliday at 36, then nicely dovetailing this material into a treatment of Doc’s penchant for gambling. Olds carries the motifs of life and fate, gambling and luck straight to the center of the American fascination with fortune and individual enterprise, composing a critique unprecedented in its acuity and grace. He next presents Doc’s life among friends, drawing portraits of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Bat Masterson that leave the weathered chaps, ten-gallon hats, and quick-draw machismo far behind. After rendering the mythical confrontation at the OK Corral in gorgeous, operatically controlled prose, Olds concludes with Doc’s dreamy, craven, painful death in a bed bloodied by his coughing. Characteristically, the author heads for the fringes of American culture yet declines to write in a style that simply mirrors his subject, instead seeding the tale with his own style of ravishment. He wields the most lyrically lucid prose and poetically charged sensibility this country’s literature has known in a very long while.
Startling, vivid, unforgettable: a novel that compels the reading imagination.