Every day in Tombstone, Ariz., actors re-create the famous gunfight of October 1881, when the Earp brothers—Virgil, Morgan and the legendary Wyatt—along with their friend, Doc Holliday, confronted a gang of local troublemakers known as the “Cow Boys,” in a shootout that wounded several and left three dead. The battle lasted a mere 30 seconds, though in modern cinematic slow-motion, it goes on forever.
In Epitaph, Mary Doria Russell goes beyond the bloody melodrama, turning painstaking historical research into an absorbing 600-page novel that seeks to understand these men and the context in which they lived and fought. Russell writes of the participants, “Whether you live another five minutes or another 50 years, those awful 30 seconds will become a private eclipse of the sun, darkening every moment left to you.”
Russell ended her terrific 2011 novel, Doc, before Holliday’s brief stint in Tombstone, largely because she felt the O.K. Corral overshadowed the rest of a remarkable life. But now Russell carries forward Doc’s story, as he is increasingly incapacitated by tuberculosis and seldom able to practice his chosen profession, dentistry. As Russell tells it, in fact, Doc first comes to Tombstone in 1880 as a special favor, in order to tend Wyatt Earp’s toothache. Russell vividly depicts Holliday’s suffering, both physical and mental: A man whose reputation as an outlaw gunslinger becomes increasingly ridiculous as his strength wanes.
Holliday was the main focus of Doc, but dozens of distinctive characters populate Epitaph, a story that Russell tells with omniscient aplomb. One standout character is Josephine Marcus, the daughter of a San Francisco Jewish baker; she ran away as a teenager to become an actress. She winds up living with Johnny Behan, eventual sheriff of Cochise County, a man determined to further his political career by any means necessary, including exploiting the violence plaguing Tombstone. Behan discreetly allies himself with the Cow Boys, thereby rousing Wyatt Earp’s ire and eventually estranging Marcus, who becomes Earp’s lover.
Epitaph shows how a single bloody skirmish in the streets—a rare occurrence historically—becomes the mythic model of daily life in Western frontier towns. Russell ably evokes this epic myth, which continues to fuel our imagination, but what she really excels at is immersing readers in the reality of life in the early 1880s—the clashing tempers and political factions of people striving for power, fortune or at least a toehold in life amid the day-to-day grit of a rugged desert outpost.
This review originally appeared in High Country News.
Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral
By Mary Doria Russell
592 pages, $27.99