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Review: Mary Doria Russell's novel 'Doc,' Jeff Guinn's 'The Last Gunfight' tell differing tales of Tombstone

Jeff Guinn's The Last Gunfight hits a bump — two bumps, actually — on the cover. First, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (in fact the gunfight in back of the O.K. Corral) was far from the last gunfight of the Old West. Second, the subtitle promises to tell "how it changed the American West," but there is no evidence that it changed the West at all unless one means through its depiction in Hollywood films.

The cover isn't the author's fault, but he can be blamed for long, rambling opening chapters such as "The West," which attempts to sum up decades of the American frontier in a handful of pages. The reader's attention is already wandering a bit before the Earp family even shows up.

Guinn, author of a highly readable account of Bonnie and Clyde, Go Down Together, is good at understanding the thankless lot of the frontier lawman. On Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt Earp, he writes: "Few frontier lawmen had clean records; the idea was that men who had broken laws themselves would understand best how to prevent others from doing the same."

But when the Earps arrive at Tombstone, the vast amount of historical material about the politics, economics and personal feuds that led up to the famous gunfight and its bloody aftermath seems to overwhelm Guinn. He relies too heavily on interviews with other authors instead of going back to original documents, which undermines the originality of the book and makes it difficult to discern the author's own voice. Phrases are carelessly repeated; both the Clantons and McLaurys, the cattle rustlers who clashed with the Earps at the gunfight, are described as "pragmatic businessmen" — which might be true if stealing and fencing stolen property can be regarded as business.

More serious, perhaps, is that Guinn often rests his key arguments on unsubstantiated assertions. In his chapter notes he writes, "This should be made clear: no one living knows exactly what happened during the fabled gunfight. . . ." But when the bullets start flying, he seems to have a definite idea as to who fired which bullet and when.

Guinn places the relationship between Wyatt and Josephine Marcus, the Jewish girl from San Francisco who was mistress to Wyatt's rival, Sheriff John Behan, at the center of the story.

When Josephine leaves Tombstone, Guinn writes, she goes "with Wyatt's blessing and promise that they would see each other again." It would be interesting to know what this conclusion is based on, since there isn't a shred of known evidence that Wyatt and Josephine (though they were later married for 47 years) ever spoke a word to each other in Tombstone.

There are other unsourced and unsupportable statements. For instance: "As with many Southern gentlemen of his time, Doc (Holliday) probably had no fondness for Jews." Since the ruling class of the Old South was by most accounts very comfortable with Jews, electing several to Senate seats and even welcoming them to the Confederate government, one would like to know on what Guinn bases this conclusion.

Doc Holliday, the tubercular dentist from Griffin, Ga., and the most enigmatic of the Earps' allies in Tombstone, is the subject of Mary Doria Russell's novel Doc. With the possible exception of Billy the Kid, Holliday has been the subject of more serious fiction than any other Old West gunfighter, and Russell may be the best writer to have attempted his story.

Russell grabs us from the opening sentence: "He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs . . . in all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness."

She determines that this was in Dodge City, not Tombstone, while Holliday pursued his profession — pulling teeth but seldom his gun. She holds our interest not with gunfire but by involving us in the turbulent social life of the West's most mythical cow town, a place "unjudged by God, who had surely forsaken this small, bright hell hole in the immense, human darkness that was west Kansas."

The hellishness is relieved by rousing descriptions of swarms of Texas cowhands, fresh off the trail, descending on Dodge City's saloons; amusing depictions of stage shows by legendary comic Eddie Foy; and such arcane subjects as frontier dentistry or the everyday life of the Chinese in the Old West.

Russell makes the narrative hum and the characters come alive. She can write, and though her dialogue borrows perhaps one line too many from Val Kilmer's portrayal of Holliday in the movie Tombstone, the best descriptions are certainly her own. The face of Doc's Hungarian-born companion, Kate Haroney, "was pale and scrubbed. Her fine, fair hair was pulled back artlessly. He could see the scared girl she had been at fifteen and the hard woman she would be at fifty."

Wyatt Earp, she writes, "had not smiled since 1855" — when his wife and baby died in childbirth — "and didn't like to say much more than six or seven words in a row to anyone but his brothers" — and, eventually, Doc, who "used more words in five minutes than Wyatt had spoke during 1872 and '73, combined."

Doc "bucks the Tiger's odds," as they said on faro tables at the time, and survives Dodge City. With luck, Russell will take him on to Tombstone and immortality.

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp, His Life and Many Legends" (University of Nebraska Press).

The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral — and How It Changed the American West

By Jeff Guinn

Simon & Schuster, 392 pages, $27

Doc

By Mary Doria Russell

Random House, 394 pages, $26

Review: Mary Doria Russell's novel 'Doc,' Jeff Guinn's 'The Last Gunfight' tell differing tales of Tombstone 06/11/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 11, 2011 5:30am]

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