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Review: Mary Doria Russell’s ‘Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral’

EPITAPH: A Novel of the O.K. Corral. Mary Doria Russell. Ecco. 581 pages. $27.99.
EPITAPH: A Novel of the O.K. Corral. Mary Doria Russell. Ecco. 581 pages. $27.99.

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been dramatized in numerous books, on stage, on screen, and in one particularly far-fetched episode of Star Trek. In Epitaph, Mary Doria Russell revisits the iconic shootout, delving into its dramatic back story and aftermath. With vast amounts of research and a poetic prose line, she puts the hard kernel of the gunfight’s violence at the center of a setting as wide and complicated as the young United States itself.

It’s a remarkable accomplishment, especially given that the battle, which erupted just up the street from the O.K. Corral, in the Arizona territory town of Tombstone on Oct. 26, 1881, lasted a mere 30 seconds. The result of a longstanding feud between a group of five “Cow Boys” (Ike and Billy Clanton, Billy Clairborne, and Tom and Fred McLaury) and a group of Tombstone lawmen (town marshal Virgil Earp, assistant town marshal Morgan Earp, and their deputies, Wyatt Earp and John Henry “Doc” Holliday), the shooting happened in a quick fusillade, with the two sides standing a mere six feet apart. In instants, Morgan and Virgil Earp and Doc Holliday were wounded, and Billy Clanton and the McLaurys were dead.

On the surface, it’s just one in the long list of such gun battles that made the Wild West so dangerous for settlers — and irresistible for TV producers (as fans of HBO’s Deadwood will recall, Morgan and Wyatt Earp made an appearance in that great show), but hardly the stuff of epic. And yet, Russell has crafted an epic tale out of it just the same. She sets the event within the broader context of the times, creating a sweeping canvas that touches on subjects as disparate as the politics of President Chester A. Arthur and life in the Jewish quarter of San Francisco. It’s a stunning performance, richer in depth than Larry McMurtry’s version in The Last Kind Words Saloon and much broader in scope than Loren D. Estleman’s brilliant 1987 novel Bloody Season.

In fact, “Epitaph” most closely resembles McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove in its moral core and sheer plenitude of character. Russell lavishes detailed attention on every member of her huge cast. There’s Wyatt Earp’s unofficial “wife,” Josie Marcus, who fights to keep her lover’s reputation pure, and John Clum, the hapless editor of the Epitaph, the local newspaperman who eventually prefers not to live in a town where “the gravediggers were more prosperous than the newspaper owners,” and Tombstone Sheriff Johnny Behan, described by Doc Holliday as “that presumptuous, third-rate, overdressed Irish bigot.”

But inevitably, everything comes back to the Earps and Doc Holliday. (The latter so indelibly brought to life in Russell’s luminously good 2011 novel Doc.) Russell portrays the men as battered knights errant, friends and good men in a venal, dishonorable world. Everything about Holliday, she writes, “seemed slightly askew. His smile, his posture, his demeanor.” Brothers Virgil and Morgan are formidable but friendly; Wyatt is something more elemental, a brooding figure capable of producing “a look so hard it felt like a shove.” When the infamous gunfight breaks out, Wyatt is an invulnerable tower: “Still standing, taking careful aim, like a man shooting at beer bottles or tin cans. Each shot separate. Bang. Bang. Bang.”

And in the shooting’s aftermath, when the town’s nefarious Cow Boys rally and first grievously wound Virgil and then kill Morgan, Russell gives her novel a black final act, the so-called Earp Vendetta Ride, in which Morgan Earp’s killers are hunted down by Wyatt, who is at last freed from a lifetime of controlling his rage. “The long struggle for control was over,” Russell writes. “He was bred to this anger. It had been in him since the cradle.” Pursued by a posse composed of the very Cow Boys who shot his brothers, Wyatt Earp the lawman dispenses with the law: “He wasn’t going to sit in court and listen to their smirking friends lie under oath. Oh, he was with me in Contention that night. We was playing cards, Your Honor, so he couldn’t have shot Morgan Earp.” The whole section is so bleakly Jacobean that it demands to be read in one tense sitting.

Russell follows the Earps and Doc Holliday to the end of their stories, and by the time a character, contemplating a dying Wyatt, asks, “What happens when the old lion leaves us?” we’re asking it, too.

Stephen Donoghue reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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