Doc Holliday is the tragic hero in this terrific bio-epic set in a revisionist version of the Old West—more realistic yet more riveting than any movie or TV western.
Born with a cleft palate in 1851, John Henry Holliday grows up in Georgia devoted to his tubercular mother who fosters his love of literature and music before her early death. A promising dental career in Atlanta ends when he is diagnosed with tuberculosis at age 22, and he heads west for his health. By 1878, when Doc turns up in Dodge City with his mistress Kate, professional gambling has eclipsed his dental career. He has also been accused and acquitted of murder, but according to Russell (Dreamers of the Day, 2008, etc.), he is neither a hardened gunfighter nor a pathetic dipsomaniac. Soon he sets up a dental practice and befriends Morgan Earp, the most intellectual Earp brother. Fact and mythmaking converge as Russell creates a Dodge City filled with nuggets of surprising history, a city so alive readers can smell the sawdust and hear the tinkling of saloon pianos. Losing their mythic, heroic sheen, figures like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson become more captivating for their complexity. Doc’s new friends are in their 20s (years before the O.K. Corral brings Doc and the Earps fame), still defining themselves and their ambitions, while their girlfriends are prostitutes without hearts of gold, only depressing pasts and often-hopeless futures. Doc observes the feuds and changing Dodge City politics from his vantage point, treating teeth and dealing Faro. Meanwhile, he drinks to medicate against his physical pain and gambles because the dentistry he loves won’t pay his bills. He and Kate, his intellectual equal, whose life began as the highly educated daughter of a Hungarian doctor before her family’s ruin, share an increasingly tumultuous relationship, torn apart by her neediness and the inevitability of his deteriorating health. Their creed, heartbreaking and brave, becomes “Without hope, without fear.”
Filled with action and humor yet philosophically rich and deeply moving—a magnificent read.