Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wild card

In the department-of-weird, I finished Mary Doria Russell's Doc just about a year to the day after finishing her Dreamers of the Day. Of course, this was months ago. But this story is completely fresh in my mind, thanks to a wonderful narrator -- Mark Bramhall -- who immerses himself into the book and the indelible character of John Henry Holliday, DDS. How delighted I am to learn that Russell couldn't say goodbye to him either, as her next novel -- coming in March -- takes Doc and the other famous denizens of Dodge City, Kansas to their date with destiny in Tombstone, Arizona.

But this book brings Doc only to Dodge City. In its early chapters we learn of Doc's birth and childhood in antebellum Georgia, his education as a dentist, and of the bout of tuberculosis that began the long, slow weakening of his lungs and sent him West seeking a drier climate that would hopefully bring about a cure. Doc's travels first took him to Texas, from which -- when his love of drinking and gambling (and his realization that he could make more money playing cards than he could practicing dentistry) brought him trouble along with an attempt on his life -- he needed to make a quick exit. He was also a skilled gunfighter. After additional travels -- and meeting a lawman named Wyatt Earp -- he found himself in the truly wild west town of Dodge City, Kansas. It was 1878 and Doc was 26 years old.

Russell's chapter headings take us through a poker game, i.e., from "First Hand" through to "Cashing Out" and "The Rake." Their use is timely, particularly while listening, as a hint of what is to come. As in, when Bramhall reads, "Third Hand: Ladies High," trouble in the female department is likely ahead.

But once Doc arrives in Dodge, there's not much plot remaining in the novel. Doc sets up his practice, he establishes his bona fides in the town's gambling houses, he makes friends, he has debilitating bouts with the TB and equally horrific quarrels with his long-time companion (and practicing prostitute), Katie Horony. He is always a Southern gentlemen with elegant manners and, despite his extra-legal activities, Doc seems to act from integrity.

No, a listener doesn't need a plot here, because the characters are so glorious. Russell gives us these exquisite little character studies -- both fictional and real: Doc's overprotective mother, the plodding, methodical Wyatt Earp and his horse Dick Nailer, his more handsome and popular brother Morgan, Sheriff Bat Masterson (who also owns a saloon, although pretty much every businessman in Dodge owned a saloon and had married [or was living with] a prostitute), the knowing young daughter of the owner of the general store (and politician), Irish vaudevillian Eddie Foy, a compassionate Austrian Jesuit, a young biracial (black and Native American) orphan educated by the Jesuits who dies in a suspicious fire, and fiery Big Nose Kate, the love (and bane) of Doc's life, who followed him until the end, and who cultivated his mythology.

All are brought to vivid life by Bramhall, who is masterful in his command of this sprawling novel. He reads the narrative in a baritone, slightly scratchy Western twang that provides a picture of a slightly boozy cowboy, booted feet up on the table, drinking whiskey, spitting tobacco telling this drawn-out story in his own sweet time. All of the characters are voiced and the voices are compelling and consistent. There's a husky breathiness to Doc's speech indicative of his straining lungs, and his Georgia origins are clear in the slow drawl of his dialog. While Dodge's law- and businessmen have all ceased to be unique in the nearly four months since I heard this, in their dialog it was always clear who was speaking.

International accents are called for and provided -- Katie's Hungarian, the Jesuit's Austrian, the Chinese laundryman, the Irish Foy. There is a truly hilarious scene when the Jesuit arrives in Dodge and many in the town line up for confession. Each voice is unique, the hint of each story perfect in just a few lines of text. Bramhall switches effortlessly from one to another.

Mary Doria Russell just does not disappoint (me). I've read every single one of her books and enjoyed them all. Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral is something to look forward to. I wonder who will read it?

[Evidently, there are a number of we're-not-sure-that-these-are-actually-photos-of-Doc-Holliday out there, but this one has "provenance" (according to Wikipedia, although the website from which it originates declares itself to be on "hiatus"). If this is indeed Doc, it was taken shortly after he left Dodge City. Note the luxurious mustache, designed perhaps to hide the scar created from his early surgery for a cleft palate (also disputed).]

Doc by Mary Doria Russell
Narrated by Mark Bramhall
Books on Tape, 2011. 16:38

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