Paul West: O.K.: The Corral, the Earps, and Doc Holliday

Paul West
O.K.: The Corral, the Earps, and
Doc Holliday

Scribner

 

ONE OF THE most intriguing puzzles of American folklore is why Billy the Kid has inspired so much literature and the other great legends of the Southwest, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, so little. Billy can claim homage from the likes of Gore Vidal, Michael Ondaatje, Larry McMurtry, N. Scott Momaday, Michael McClure, and an entire school of poetry in the Sixties, to say nothing of a ballet by Aaron Copland. On Wyatt and Doc there is scarcely any serious literature at all, despite the continued presence of Earp's image in our national consciousness, exemplified by the anonymous U.S. Marine colonel a few years ago who announced on landing in Somalia, "This may be Dodge City, but we're Wyatt Earp."

Crime novelist W. R. Burnett (best known for Little Caesar) gave the Earp-Holliday saga a shot with his 1932 Law and Order. But in the decades since, Wyatt's most notable literary appearances have been as a shadowy villain of the mustache-twirling variety in David Thomson's 1990 novel, Silver Light, and as a straight man to the comic Jack Crabb in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man and The Return of Little Big Man. Thomson's Earp didn't work; Berger's did. Neither, though, owed much to the historical record. But then Earp was such a controversial figure in his own lifetime that source material untainted by partisan tampering is fairly difficult to come by.

Come to think of it, that might be one reason there has been so little Earp literature. Paul West, master stylist and exhaustive researcher of historical novels (Lord Byron's Doctor; The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper; Rat Man of Paris) has tracked down just about every scrap of writing there is and seen every movie about the buffalo-hunter-gambler-and-sometimes-lawman Wyatt Earp and his close friend, the tubercular dentist-turned-gambler and gunfighter, John Henry "Doc" Holliday, and brought it all together in a book that at various times reads like a biography, essay, and novel. One wishes it read a bit more like just a novel.

O.K. is written mostly from Doc's point of view, a device that has some historical logic, as Holliday was college educated and presumably the more literate of the two legendary gunfighters. West invents Holliday's letters to his cousin Mattie back in Georgia (the real ones were destroyed by a nun) turning the pair into spiritual lovers--this in bold contrast to the sordidness of Holliday's actual relationship with the Hungarian prostitute "Big Nosed Kate." "All he wanted," comments the ghostly narrator, "was his Mattie at a distance, rather than anyone else nearby." In West's telling, Doc's rotting lungs have turned him into a philosopher determined to "live absurdly in an absurd world as best he could, dimly aware of how passionately the mind clung to old ways of making sense of things."

Looking for one last gunfight to spare him the agony of dying in bed, Doc latches onto Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp, "a walking grandeur of prosaic disposition" with "an almost preternatural ability with angles and perspectives, a killer who was also a surveyor [of men's faces]." Yet, stylish descriptions like this aside, the Wyatt Earp of O.K. never comes into focus. And the closer we get to the famous gunfight and subsequent vendetta between the Earp faction and the cowboy rustlers, the more amorphous O.K. becomes.

West makes reference to virtually every Wyatt Earp movie from John Ford's My Darling Clementine to the Kevin Costner epic Wyatt Earp, often putting dialogue from the films in the mouths of the characters. He even lifts some items directly out of the films, such as the image of cowboys wearing red sashes around their waists. The allusions and quotations undermine the novel's credibility, partly because the borrowed phrases, such as West's Wyatt echoing Kurt Russell in Tombstone by challenging a foe to "skin that smoke wagon," are more memorable than West's, but also because they don't add up to a picture of Wyatt or Doc vivid enough to replace the ones of decades past.

 
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