EPITAPH by Mary Doria Russell
Kirkus Star


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Russell follows up her fictional portrait of Doc Holliday (Doc, 2011) with this fictional deconstruction of the shootout at the O.K. Corral.

While Doc Holliday’s charisma remains unrivaled, he becomes a kind of Greek chorus when Russell shifts her focus to Wyatt Earp, the ambivalent, morally ambiguous not-quite-hero of this Western Iliad; as Doc says after a gunfight in which Wyatt’s boot heel is shot off but he remains unharmed, “Achilles himself would have envied your luck.” By 1880, when Doc shows up, the Earp brothers have settled in Tombstone with their “wives”—Russell’s strongly drawn women are frontier survivors who take what security they can get whether officially legal or not. Also new in town is 18-year-old Josie Marcus, a nice Jewish runaway from San Francisco who's ended up the "wife” of Republican politician/businessman Johnny Behan. The Irish Yankee is competing with southern Democrat Wyatt Earp for sheriff. Their friendly political rivalry turns ugly once they begin competing for Josie as well. Meanwhile, big business interests behind the silver mines want to rid Tombstone of the local rustlers and petty criminals threatening the town’s reputation and the capitalists’ financial futures. The novel shifts effortlessly between intimate focus—for instance, Doc quietly teaching Josie a piano piece; actually, every scene with Doc or Josie is a bull’s eye—and a wide angle that captures President James Garfield’s assassination as well as the history of silver mining. The volatile mix of money, politics and personal vengeance intensifies in the months leading to the famous shootout and its less famous but brutal aftermath during which Wyatt loses his moral center. Eventually the novel becomes less violent but sadder and more realistic as Wyatt turns into a sullied victor on an odyssey toward Josie and pop-culture immortality.

Despite all that has been written and filmed about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, Russell’s pointedly anti-epic anti-romance is so epic and romantic that it whets the reader’s appetite for more.

Pub Date: March 3rd, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-06-219876-1
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2014


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