Jun. 12th, 2011


Jun. 12th, 2011 05:59 pm
coalescent: (Default)
This is not a review, only a brief note. I don't know Westerns except as cliches, and in this case I only knew the names. Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, the gunfight at the OK Corral: I couldn't have told you stories that went with them, indeed wasn't consciously aware they were part of the same story. Which made reading Mary Doria Russell's latest novel an odd experience, at times. Doc is part of the story of John Henry Holliday. From context, I gather the summer of 1878 is one of the parts that is less-told, but at least as Russell tells it, it's the summer when, living in Dodge City, Kansas, Holliday and Earp became friends. A relatively quiet summer; unlike The Sparrow there's no shattering personal tragedy to uncover here, unlike A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day no geopolitical event giving shape to the story. Dodge is a frontier town, but there are precious few gunfights (though Russell does allow herself one "get out of Dodge!"); set pieces are more likely to focus on a party or a poker game, and most of the novel is taken up with the texture of daily existence.

But it's a novel that's aware of and comments on the fame of its protagonists, and the other inhabitants of Dodge City. The cast list is even longer than that of A Thread of Grace, I think (although the only other name I recognised was Bat Masterson), and the narrative voice is as temporally free as that of Dreamers of the Day (though without the fantastic enabling conceit), making reference to the OK Corral even though the novel stops years before the event itself, and considering the later exaggeration and distortion of certain events. The result is a novel very aware of the contingency of life, whose emotional peaks often involve evocation of the "ghost lives" that its characters might have lived if certain events had gone otherwise; usually as grace notes, but in one chapter there is a sustained imaging of an unremarkable alternative life for Holliday, hanging off a turning-point in his relationship with a prostitute, Kate Harony. Such explicit self-commentary did ensure that I wasn't as adrift as I might have been; and made it clear that the novel is in part an intervention into the dialogue of the Western, and the processes by which people have been made into myths; yet also made it clear how much of the detail of that intervention I must be missing.

Perhaps it also played into the fact that Doc took a while to win me over. Russell's writing is always a mix of sentiment and steel, but the balance seemed off in the first half of this novel, too much of the former and too much of the latter. But as more perspectives are brought into the mix -- Jau Dong-Sing, proprietor of the town laundry; Bessie Earp, the madam of a Dodge brothel; Alex von Angensperg, S.J.; Captain Elijah Garrett Grier; I gather some of these were real people, some are invented -- the more Holliday and Earp and Dodge itself are seen from a variety of angles -- the better the balance, and the more Doc drew me in. Unlike Ron Charles I don't hunger for a sequel (in fact I think a sequel would rather miss the point), and by some margin it's not my favourite of Russell's books. But Doc contains some exquisite moments, and taught me some things, and I'm not sorry to have read it.

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