Bruce Olds: Bucking the Tiger

Bruce Olds
Bucking the Tiger
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

ED BAILEY NEVER saw it coming. Sitting down in a Fort Griffin saloon for what he believed to be a typical game of poker, Ed was in fact on the verge of being etched into history by the edge of a dagger. John Henry "Doc" Holliday plunged his blade into poor old Ed's abdomen--an act "presenting no more resistance than uprooting a radish"--spilling his entrails all over the saloon floor and making him casualty number one. (That's not counting those three Negro boys Doc aerated with a shotgun for visiting a whites-only watering hole; killing Negroes doesn't count.) Throwing back Ed's unfinished glass of whiskey, the gentleman killer of the West saw fit to immortalize the moment with a toast: "Well huzzahs, young Ed. Welcome to the archive. Welcome to history. Welcome to the wonduhful world of Holliday."

Thus begins author Bruce Olds's fictional foray into the life of one of the West's most charmingly sinister characters in his second novel, Bucking the Tiger. The title of the book refers to a slang term used to describe a person who gambled on faro, the frontier card game that combined poker with other forms of play. It was faro that Holliday was considered the master of, and it was faro that proved the source of so many of his often fatal conflicts. But his story, as told through a combination of first-person narrative, poetry, and real and fabricated documents, covers far more than his shady dealings at the card table. In Olds's luminous account, the reader follows a 15-year-old Doc from his mother's deathbed (she died of the same tuberculosis that would strike down her son many years later), through his years as a dentist, to his life as a Western operator and sometime compatriot of the Earps.

But it's not where the reader is going so much as how he gets there that makes the book so engrossing. Olds writes poetry as much as prose, lending Doc's every action, be it saintly or wicked, the air of legend. At one point Doc catches a cheater at a card table by stabbing him in the hand. Rather than handle the scene with a straightforward description, Olds treats the reader to a rambling verse that makes the stabbing seem almost like a violent ballet: "pitch of poured metal stab, bladestrike to plungepoint, no spray outsplay no bump of blood but dull stun of wood stemming clean through corsage. Through butterfly, pinned palm down to tabletop. Trumped."

In the beginning, one almost cannot wait to see how this dazzling style will be applied to the fabled Tombstone gunfight that made Holliday famous. Yet by the time we reach that point (near the end of the book, by the way), we have long since stopped caring, as Holliday's lifelong battles--both internal and external--make that shootout seem somehow insignificant and anticlimactic. Besides, the retelling of the gunfight is the weakest segment of the book anyway--wonderfully methodical and precise in its recital, but nothing we haven't already seen in the movies.

 
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