'Epitaph' Dispels Hollywood Myths About the Gunfight at O.K. Corral

Doria Russell finds heroes in the errant in Epitaph, a novel that captures the realities of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and much more.

Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral

Publisher: Ecco
Length: 581 pages
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Price: $27.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-03

Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral isn’t Mary Doria Russell’s first time in the saddle; the New York Times bestselling author had a western hit in 2011’s Doc, about John Henry “Doc” Holliday. Encouraged by the reception that her break from sci-fi convention into the world of historical fiction received, Russell mustered up what could be called her first-ever sequel, here part two, if you will, which is set around the actual events leading to the 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone.

Russell prides herself on her research, and here she cracks through the fantastical mold that so often envelopes traditional western fiction (in part thanks to Hollywood mischief), and peels back the curtain on a world ten times more vibrant than many realize. In addition to her research, the author took a trip herself, on horseback, through the mountainous desert terrain surrounding Tombstone. She did this to better grasp the struggle that Doc Holliday faced while traveling through that same area, albeit under harsher conditions. (He would eventually die of tuberculosis.) Her studiousness is to be applauded, and the task of deconstructing US history’s most famous shootout, while leaving no character undeveloped, and no character forgotten, is a literary accomplishment unto itself. Going the extra mile, on horseback, no less, shows Russell's passion for this work.

One character in Epitaph is fictional, and while many actual conversations depicted no doubt are fictional, as well, Epitaph was written with a studied respect for each individual in the story. In not aiming to achieve a depiction of the classic romanticized epic, and instead opting for something much more real in its shot and trajectory, Russell has, perhaps accidentally, developed her most romantic epic to date. For all at once there's political drama, arduous fights for love and power, a lingering question of morality, and a sweeping history lesson on the realities of 19th century life in the American West. Indeed, Russell crafts a tale that is as easy to get lost in as it is comprehensive, as it's brimming with detail that seems hand-sewn to replicate the era and its scenes’ key players incredibly well.

At one point Russell examines life as it was within the Jewish sector of San Francisco, and at another, she gives Josephine Marcus a helping hand on a piano piece through the assistance of Doc Holliday; the intimacy of the situation offers a certain propensity to the composition as a conversation piece. Here, Russell writes as if in close proximity to the main characters — especially with Josie and Wyatt Earp -- as the story looms ever nearer to its titular moment. Elsewhere, she broadly paints scenes that provide an overarching scope, making the overall picture all the more clear to behold. Musings on gun prohibition, gangsters, assassinations, political debate, and women who actually hold their own in the Old West all lend themselves to the epic nature of the novel. This makes the end all the more poignant, as Wyatt avenges his younger brother’s death, and loses his moral compass in the process.

One of the biggest truths that Russell divulges throughout the course of Epitaph is that the titular shooting did not actually take place at the O.K. Corral. The story took up less space in newspaper type, she quips, than to call “The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, “The Gunfight at the Empty Lot Adjacent to C.S. Fly’s Photography Studio”. The vast differences between Russell’s telling of this historical event and that of Hollywood’s depictions is that hers is as real as it gets. Indeed, Russell writes with fearless realism, her characters are prone toward gritty misdeeds, and questions of valor and ethics run strongly through her telling. For fans of Doc, Epitaph is the next logical step in Russell's oeuvre, and or anyone who enjoys the western genre, and historical fiction in general, Epitaph will not disappoint.





'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.