I loved, unreservedly, Mary Doria Russell’s 2012 novel Doc, about the life of Doc Holliday before the infamous events of the OK Corral in Tombstone, AZ. I was just familiar enough with both the history and mythology of the story to really appreciate the way she wove them together. When I saw she’d written a follow-up, Epitaph—subtitled A Novel of the OK Corral—I was both excited and concerned. Doc was perfect; any follow-up couldn’t possibly be as resonant and affecting, right?
Well, the short version is that lightning did strike twice. Epitaph is every bit as good as Doc, but whereas the former was a character study, this is an epic. Yet while it does operate on a huge scale, it never forgets that it’s mainly about people, and Russell repeats the crucial thing she did in Doc: she explains how the characters’ thoughts and personalities are the real cause for the events of history and legend.
The book begins with a fourth-wall breaking section that asks us to consider that the so-called “Gunfight at the OK Corral” took only thirty seconds. Those thirty seconds would define the characters for the rest of their lives, whether they wanted it or not. Then we meet Josie “Sadie” Marcus, seen through the eyes of Doc Holliday. Josie becomes our go-to character throughout the story, even though Russell gives us plenty of insights into Doc, Wyatt Earp, and all the other figures. Among her most interesting bits of characterization (and there are a lot) are those that explain how head trauma affects decision-making, and through that, drawing parallels between Wyatt and the traditional villain of the story, Ike Clanton.
Further, there’s another fourth-wall section toward the end that’s absolutely touching in its intent, because there’s no way the reader can follow its suggestion. And the final pages follow the Earp story into years I’ve seldom seen mentioned, let alone dramatized. Because Wyatt Earp lived to be 80, dying in 1929, and that’s a long time to have thirty seconds define you.
The book’s strongest element, though, is its sheer readability. It’s a page turner, written in an open, clean style that never gets in its own way. As a writer, I both envy that and aspire to it, but ultimately can never know if I achieve it (I haven’t asked her, but I bet Russell worries about that herself, too. Only a reader can say if a writer accomplishes his or her goals).
It’s not necessary to read Doc prior to Epitaph. The latter stands quite handily on its own, and only obliquely refers back to the earlier book. And as I said, Epitaph is a different kind of book, bigger and broader, a symphony as opposed to a chamber piece. So whether you’ve read Doc or not, you should definitely read Epitaph, because it puts flesh, muscle, blood and tears on the skeleton we all know as the Gunfight at the OK Corral.