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When, Where And Wyatt

Paul West's novel 'O.K.' tries to explain one of American history's most ambiguous heroes

By Allen Barra

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 influenced 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 '60s, to say nothing of a ballet by Aaron Copland. Scarcely any serious literature exists on Wyatt and Doc at all, despite the continued presence of Earp's image in our national consciousness.

Crime novelist W.R. Burnett (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 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.

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

O.K.: The Corral, the Earps, and Doc Holliday is written mostly from Doc's point of view, a device that has some historical logic, because Holliday was college-educated and presumably the most erudite of the two legendary gunfighters. We don't have Holliday's letters to his cousin Mattie back in Georgia, which were destroyed by a nun 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 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." 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 fact, Wyatt Earp 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 WYATT EARP of O.K. never really 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 the novel 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 dialog 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 but also because they don't add up to a coherent picture of Wyatt or Doc.

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 West of legend come alive in our minds.

O.K.: The Corral, the Earps, and Doc Holliday by Paul West ; Scribners; 303 pages; $24 cloth.

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From the April 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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