You Have to Read This: Mary Doria Russell’s Sprawling, Humane Doc Holliday Western Epitaph


There’s a kabillion books published each year. We swear that the ones in “You Have to Read This” are worth your eyeball time!

What You Have to Read: Mary Doria Russell’s Epitaph

The Gist: This sprawling, generous western is subtitled “A novel of the O.K. Corral,” which might trick people into buying it at the airport but sells short the book’s ambition and humanity. Russell plunges readers into the hearts and fates of famous names — Doc Holliday, the Earp boys — and a grand cast of real folks who dared make a home of Tombstone, Arizona, decades before the invention of air-conditioning.

Yes, Russell’s almost 600-page saga delivers the gunfight goods, but that misleading subtitle would serve readers better if changed to something like “A novel of the O.K. Corral, sure, but also gambling, piano playing, myth-making, tuberculosis, frontier politics, yellow journalism, preventative policing, vengeance killings, how mines work, and what it must have been like to live in a place as mad and dusty as Tombstone, including how it feels to toil all day in a sewing circle with your sisters-in-law and dream of maybe getting gussied up to go downtown for once in your life.”

A Taste:

… all four of the girls were feeling pretty shiny by the time they finished their main courses, for they were working on their second bottle of champagne. Doc himself just sipped at his bourbon whenever his cough got bad. He didn’t eat much either — no wonder he was so skinny! But when the waiter asked about dessert, Doc said, “Let’s have one of everything for the ladies to try. And I myself would like to see how a California peach stacks up against the Georgia variety.”

Why You Should Read It: In Epitaph‘s first scene, Russell gives fans of Doc, her earlier western, exactly what they want: the chance to pass some time with her Doc Holliday, the Georgia gentleman gambler, dentist, and Chopin-loving pianist who at all times fights a tubercular cough and his own tendency to draw trouble. He’s terrific company, and in Russell’s conception a hell of a nice guy. The emotional peak of Doc, a more eccentric novel than Epitaph, concerned Holliday’s acquisition of a prize horse for a broke friend.

But immediately after reintroducing Doc, Russell gets back to what actually made Doc great: her vigorous and compassionate treatment of the hearts and histories of the real-life people who in so many other westerns are just background. First up is Josie Marcus, daughter of a San Francisco baker and kinda/sorta wife of a skunk of a politician. Russell sets down her story with warmth, humor, and high excitement, in the process summoning up for us the greasepaint and ritual of a traveling western theater troupe. The portrait stands with the best of Doc, which illuminated the lives of Jau Dong-Sing, a/k/a “China Joe,” who ran a Dodge City laundry, and the vaudevillian Eddie Foy, who told jokes for the cowpokes:

“Any of you boys go with that blind prostitute?” Eddie asked. “You really have to hand it to her.”

Russell even accords humanity to the black-hatted rustlers and politicos whose machinations draw Holliday and the Earp boys into the epochal 30-second shootout toward which Epitaph surges.

The new novel is well researched and impressively committed to its cast’s social and economic realities, and Russell takes fruitful liberties with her omniscient perspective, jumping from head to head like some determined mosquito. She’s as interested in stripping away layers of myth from Holliday and the Earps as in showing how those myths got built up in the first place. Just how did a courtly sweetheart like Doc become known as one of the west’s most notorious highwaymen? Russell’s answer: politics and convenience. And how did Wyatt Earp gain the rep of a heroic gunman with the whitest of all possible hats? That’s Russell’s stirring final act, which turns on love and perseverance.

Like Doc, Epitaph is a curious sort of page-turner, a novel to race through but also to idle in: You may come for the adventure, but you’ll most remember sticking around with her people. In both books, Russell’s line-to-line invention occasionally flags. A few too many chapters end with suspense-ginning flash-forwards, telling us how many months there are to go to that gunfight none of these characters see coming. Sometimes, Holliday, who doesn’t command this book as he did Doc, is reduced to narrating his own life out loud to his friends, just to bring us up to speed. Elsewhere, Russell will vault over a plot-heavy patch of events and just have characters hazily recall the upshot the morning after. That last one is no complaint, exactly: The machinations aren’t as interesting as the people, and Russell’s got a great fire, the assassination of an American president, and a border war with Mexico to get to — and even a quick peek into the mind of Chester A. Arthur.

But those couple times that the narrative tired out, I did what her slow-witted straight-arrow Wyatt Earp would with a pooped horse: Let it rest and come back later. Every time, it proved rewarding.

If it sounds good, start with Doc — you’ll really want to meet Kate, Eddie, and Jau Dong-Sing. (Kate’s briefly in Epitaph, too, but she’s not doing too well.)

And, hey, here are the real Eddie Foy’s kids, keeping the family business going in a short subject from the earliest days of talkies.

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