An OK Corral At Best
On a cold October day in 1888, the Arizona sky heavy with impending snow, three lawman brothers and their gambler friend faced off against five alleged cattle rustlers in an alley while the mining town of Tombstone held its breath. Less than a minute later, three men were dead, three wounded, and an American myth was born.
Dubbed “The Gunfight at the OK Corral” (inaccurately, as the fight took place in the alley between the corral and a photographer’s studio), the singular event has, for many, come to define the period known as the Old West, and although the details of the feud between the Earp brothers and the Clanton gang are far more convoluted than its tellers like to admit, the sheer iconographic power of the gunfight itself refuses to die. Boiled down to a battle between the forces of law and order, brotherhood and friendship, and an opposing force of back-shooting agents of evil, it has spawned countless popular and scholarly treatments, a TV show, and four major films My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda, Gunfight at the OK Corral with Burt Lancaster, Tombstone with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, and Wyatt Earp with Kevin Costner. The last two films on the list, however, followed a trend of revisionist (or rather, clarifying) historicism that suggested that the principals in the feud, particularly Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, were not the simon-pure figures portrayed in earlier treatments. Simply put, the era of the white-hat/black-hat western is long dead, and the themes of the Earp-Clanton affair have shifted to focus on the loyalties between men on a harsh frontier with inadequate and often corrupt law-enforcement.
If anyone is qualified to write about the unique bond between men of violence, it’s Robert B. Parker, who’s made a career out of it with his phenomenally successful and very good series about Boston private-eye Spenser and his enigmatic and deadly friend Hawk. Parker’s heroes are tough and uncompromising but also very smart and well-spoken individuals, with the kind of brothers-in-the-trenches loyalty that echoes that reportedly shared by the Earps and Doc Holliday, according to their biographers. Furthermore, the themes of the private-eye story and the western have always been closely related, with their stoic protagonists, like Spenser, who move unprotected through badlands of criminal menace, surviving by their wits and a strong moral code that often runs counter to the law. Finally, according to the book-jacket copy of Parker’s new novel Gunman’s Rhapsody, the Earp-Clanton saga is “the book he always longed to write.” So okay, if we’re going to go down to Tombstone one more time, we could not be in better hands than Parker’s.
Except that Gunman’s Rhapsody is so incredibly minimalist and episodic that within the first fifty pages one wonders why “the book he always longed to write” took Parker so long the thing reads like it was written on a couple of lunch breaks. Characters appear and disappear seemingly at random, several minor but key figures in the story are mentioned in passing, by name only if you’ve read it, John Clum is the mayor of Tombstone, John Fremont is the governor of Arizona, and Crawley Dake is the U.S. Marshal for the district, something Parker didn’t bother telling you and even major characters are underdeveloped to the point of being simply names-who-do-things.
Gunman’s Rhapsody attempts to approach the Tombstone saga from a different angle than most others, through the lens of the budding relationship between Wyatt Earp and showgirl Josephine Marcus, for whom Earp would abandon his common-law wife and eventually marry. Engaged to Cochise County sheriff John Behan, Josie throws him over for Wyatt, which Parker presents as the catalyst for the feud, with Behan acting as agent provocateur to pit the local ranchers (read: rustlers) against Wyatt and his brothers. Parker has undoubtedly drawn from Marcus’ book I Married Wyatt Earp, one of only two books written by actual participants in the events, except that Marcus’ book has long been discounted for its inaccuracies and outright fictionalizations. Is this important in a novel? When the novel deals with a topic as lovingly dissected as the Tombstone affair, yes.
Because the book deals with Wyatt and Josie, Parker focuses on them to the detriment of all of the other characters. It’s nice to see the inclusion here of brothers James and Warren Earp most treatments only deal with Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan, who were in the Gunfight and became the principal targets of the rustlers’ retribution but James’ characterization is limited to the fact that he was wounded in the Civil War and doesn’t like to fight, and Warren is relegated to “smallish and dark.” They might as well have not shown up. The pistoleer Johnny Ringo and the Clantons’ ringleader Curley Bill Brocius have a total of four appearances between them, despite being the figures that everyone in the book is worried about. Josie is well-treated, of course, but Parker makes a point of telling us how unlike a “typical” woman she is she speaks her mind and drinks as if she likes it while every other woman in the book is either a whore or a thoroughgoing bitch, with none getting more than a couple of lines at most.
The most conspicuous and damaging oversimplification is in the character of Doc Holliday. Granted, Holliday has always been treated as the most interesting character in the saga, the dark, existential, badass anti-hero who gets the best lines witness the career-building performances of both Victor Mature and Val Kilmer in the role (but ignore Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of Holliday as some kind of rodent) but the simple fact is that Holliday really was the closest of any of the characters to his myth. Rotting from the inside out from tuberculosis, he really did have that combination of suicidal tendencies, an unwillingness to do the deed himself, and the philosophical disposition to laugh at the dichotomy that made him reckless and deadly, according to his best biographer, John Myers Myers. He was the classic self-destructive personality, with enough education to realize it and enough skill to take as many people as possible to hell with him.
Parker, on the other hand, makes Holliday just a mean drunk, and not a particularly good one. Not once does Parker mention the tuberculosis that plagued him, nor does his erudite command of learned subjects appear in his character until two-thirds into the book, and only because Parker tells us that “Doc liked to talk.” In this Holliday is treated no differently than the other characters, who are all given sort of vague descriptions rather than concrete personalities and even the Gunfight itself is treated in a single hazy, impressionistic paragraph, as if Parker suddenly had an art-seizure at the precise moment he needed to be exactingly prosaic but it’s especially disappointing with Holliday because Parker has proven himself a master at realizing the dark, existential, badass anti-hero in Spenser’s sidekick Hawk.
But should Parker be pilloried for deciding to write something other than Spenser Goes to Tombstone? Well . . . yes, actually. Enough people have attempted this story, successfully and otherwise, that any attempt to do it again must necessarily bear the unique stamp of the author. Parker could have done this and done it well by taking exactly those elements that make Spenser and his crowd such a pleasure to read and translating them into this milieu. If he didn’t want to do that, he should have demonstrated that he had other guns in his arsenal to bring to bear. Next time Robert B. Parker decides to time-travel, especially when mucking about with mythology, he’d be well-advised to bring his old shooting-irons with him.