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Tombstone Blues

O.K.; The Corral, the Earps, and Doc Holliday: A Novel By Paul West; Scribner: 304 pages, $24

May 21, 2000|ALLEN BARRA | Allen Barra is the author of, most recently, "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

One of the most intriguing puzzles of American folklore is why Billy the Kid has inspired so much literature while the other great legends of the Southwest, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, have generated 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 poets in the '60s, to say nothing of Aaron Copland, whose ballet "Billy the Kid" is widely performed. On Wyatt and Doc there is scarcely any serious literature, despite their continued presence in our national consciousness. When an anonymous Marine colonel landed a few years ago in Somalia, he brazenly declared, "This may be Dodge City, but we're Wyatt Earp." In 1932, crime novelist W. R. Burnett ("Little Caesar") gave the Earp-Holliday saga a shot in the arm with his novel "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 Jack Crabb's comic foil in Thomas Berger's "Little Big Man" and "The Return of Little Big Man." Thomson's Earp didn't work; Berger's did. Neither Thomson's nor Berger's Earp owes 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.

Adding to this mystique, Paul West, master stylist and exhaustive researcher of historical novels ("Lord Byron's Doctor," "The Women of White Chapel and Jack the Ripper," "Rat Man of Paris"), has tracked down just about every scrap of writing there is and has seen every movie, ancient and modern, about the buffalo-hunter-gambler-lawman and his close friend, the tubercular dentist-turned-gambler-gunfighter, John Henry "Doc" Holliday, and brought it all together in a novel that at various times reads like a biography and an essay. One wishes it read a bit more like a novel.

"O.K." is written mostly from Doc's point of view, which makes historical sense, as Holliday was college-educated and presumably the more erudite of the two legendary gunfighters. We don't have Holliday's letters to his cousin Mattie, a nun back in Georgia, which were destroyed by a prioress in her convent, but West reinvents them, turning Doc and Mattie into spiritual lovers (in bold contrast to the sordidness of Holliday's real-life affair with the Hungarian prostitute "Big-Nosed Kate"). "All he wanted," comments the ghostly narrator, who slips back and forth between Doc's past and present, even citing one of Holliday's modern biographers, "was his Mattie at a distance, rather than anyone else nearby. . . ."

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 on to 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]"--in Wyatt's world, every gambler or drunken cowhand is a potential death dealer. (In fact, the real Earp, a cautious and careful lawman, may not have killed anyone before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but to his contemporaries he certainly seemed like a killer.)

But the Earp of "O.K." never comes into focus, and the closer the Earp brothers' (Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan) ambition for power and influence in Tombstone brings them to their famous clash with organized cattle rustlers, the more amorphous "O.K.'s" focus 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 recognizable dialogue from the films in the mouths of the characters.

He even lifts some items (such as the cowboys wearing red sashes around their waists, as in "Tombstone") directly out of the films. 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 pungent than West's own inventions but also because they don't add up to a coherent picture of Wyatt or Doc. Instead, visions of Henry Fonda or Kirk Douglas pop up, only to be replaced a page or two later by images of Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer.

What we want from a novelist like West are characters who are vivid enough to override the decades' worth of images we have of them. "O.K." has style to burn, but it never has you smelling the sweat, cigarette smoke and gunpowder that would make the legend come alive in our minds.

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