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The Last Gunfight

What exactly happened somewhat near the O.K. Corral – and other questions of modest import.

Book review, May 21, 2011

The cover of Jeff Guinn's "The Last Gunfight" announces that it's a "deconstruction" of the notorious fracas at the O.K. Corral, and I know what you're thinking: Has it come to this? Does an Old West shootout really require the mediation of French critical theory? But that only shows you haven't been paying attention. The 1881 encounter between the Earps and the Clantons in Tombstone, Ariz., has been retold countless times already: as myth, as romance, as epic, as psychosexual drama. There's a whole subculture of O.K. Corral buffery where all aspects of the gunfight are relentlessly re-examined and the emotions sometimes grow more heated than in the original feud. (One expert wrote an entire book denouncing another expert for harboring a secret "anti-Earp agenda.") Sooner or later somebody was bound to call in the postmodernists.

It turns out, though, that in this case "deconstruction" is just a trendy come-on, and the book is postmodern only in the sense of being an indiscriminate WikiLeaks-style data-dump. Mr. Guinn has no esoteric re-interpretation to offer about that day in Tombstone; instead what he has done is to aggregate every conceivable scrap of relevant information on the showdown, on the town, on the Old West and American history generally. He even informs us of the cause of the Civil War: It was, you'll be interested to learn, "the system of slavery that formed the basis for economic prosperity in the South." The result is the most thorough account of the gunfight and its circumstances ever published and also, not coincidentally, a pretty tough slog. "On October 27th," one chapter concludes, "deadly dominoes began tumbling." A few chapters later, nothing having happened in the meantime, Mr. Guinn coaxes us onward with another promise: "Dominoes kept tumbling." Bring your hardhat.

Still, the book does have its payoffs. Mr. Guinn doesn't succeed in making the shootout credible, but then nobody could do that. Eight men facing each other down in the back streets of Tombstone (they were actually at the other end of the block from the corral), standing almost close enough to touch, all simultaneously pulling out their guns and blasting away at each other: The more you think about it, the more unlikely it seems. But Mr. Guinn's frame-by-frame analysis of those fatal 30 seconds makes it seem as inexorable and horrifying as a freeway pileup.

He is just as impressive on the backstory. Most accounts make the gunfight a straightforward confrontation between the forces of law, represented by the Earp brothers serving as town marshals, and raw frontier lawlessness in the form of the Clanton family, a bunch of local troublemakers called the Cowboys (in those days an insulting term). But Mr. Guinn teases out a fantastically tangled prehistory of provocations and halfhearted compromises on both sides. Wyatt Earp and the patriarch of the Clantons were forever patching together surreptitious deals to keep their hot-tempered relatives in line. The battle finally erupted, it appears, simply because it was the least complicated option left.

The book falters, as most books about the events near the O.K. Corral do, on the people involved. Wyatt Earp remains the big question mark. He was always the superstar: famous in his own lifetime, the poster boy for Old West heroism. The first substantial book about the gunfight, Walter Noble Burns's "Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest" (originally published in 1927 and still good reading), makes Earp out to be a chivalrous knight bringing civilization to the frontier. No wonder that in the movies he is inevitably played by gleaming, dewy-eyed hunks like Henry Fonda, James Garner, Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner – he's the Platonic ideal of virtuous beefcake.

Surely there must be more to him than that. And in fact, "Tombstone" Burns does make a curious and shrewd observation. The evidence, he says, could be spun in a different way. Earp might just as plausibly be seen as nothing more than a mercenary thug enforcing the will of the town's most rapacious business interests. So which was he? Burns knew Earp (who died in 1929) and interviewed him extensively for his book, but in the end he wasn't prepared to say.

Mr. Guinn does no better. He accumulates tantalizing scraps of Earp's past. There are dubious and possibly illegal career choices: card sharp, brothel-owner and (so the rumor went) highwayman. There were also Earp's murky political entanglements – nobody became marshal of a town like Tombstone without making so many backroom arrangements that you'd swear you were in modern-day Chicago. But in the end Earp remains the same unreadable Old West daguerreotype he always is.

Mr. Guinn does even less with Earp's friend, and fellow participant in the gunfight, Doc Holliday – the sinister Spock to Earp's stolid Kirk. Holliday was a strange man: a Southern gentleman of elaborate courtesy, a hot-tempered brawling drunk, a fiercely loyal friend, a skilled professional gambler and hustler, a trained dental surgeon (thus his nickname), a longtime sufferer of tuberculosis, and a coldly murderous gunfighter. It's probably impossible to add all that up into a coherent character, and Mr. Guinn doesn't even try. All he musters is a few epithets: "the irascible dentist," he calls him. Then it's "the tubercular dentist." One time it's "the frail, feisty dentist."

But as it happens, there is a book out that does take a stab at a full-length portrait: Mary Doria Russell's novel "Doc." The jacket copy describes the book as "revisionist," and that's putting it mildly. Ms. Russell thinks the history books have Holliday all wrong, and her novel offers an alternative – that he is a supremely good man: humane, courageous, noble, decent, cultured and kind to animals. He does dislike Yankees, but he makes up for that by denouncing racial prejudice in all its forms. And while he may be a drunk and a gambler, that's only because times are hard and his illness has ruined his dental practice. Dentistry is his true calling, his way of alleviating the sufferings of mankind. As for the rumors of his murderous temper – why, they're just filthy lies, made up by an unscrupulous dime novelist. This Doc's main character trait is his sad forbearance in the face of human frailty.

It's interesting, you have to give it that. Surely it takes some kind of artistic daring to reimagine the seductive bad boy of the Tombstone story as a saintly twerp. If only the rest of the book was as avant-garde. Alas, it's merely goofy. The setting is allegedly Dodge City, a few years before the events in Tombstone: This proves to be an absurdist hicksville – a "Green Acres," where the citizens gather in saloons to debate, in their rough-hewn way, the merits of Chopin and Dostoevsky. Holliday himself spends the entire book doing a camped-up impersonation of Val Kilmer's performance (itself pretty ornate) as Holliday in the 1993 flick "Tombstone." (Some of the dialogue is recycled verbatim.) Add to that a plot where Holliday and Earp meet up for the first time and languidly investigate a murder and you've got what appears to be a script for the unsold pilot of "Doctor Holliday, Frontier Dentist."

And yet I have to admit, I kind of liked it. Ms. Russell's Old West may be nonsense, but most versions of the Old West are, and at least hers isn't pernicious nonsense. It's nice to read any take on the western where the main point isn't a heavily eroticized ritual shootout. There's barely any violence in "Doc," and the O.K. Corral comes up only in passing; this a pleasant alternative to most books on the Earp story, where the gunfight is blown up to cosmic significance.

This is also a heartening aspect of Jeff Guinn's book. His subtitle claims that the book is about "the shootout at the O.K. Corral – and how it changed the American West." But that's just marketing; every popular history now is about how something "changed" something else. The text itself exhaustively demonstrates that the events that day in Tombstone didn't change much of anything. They didn't even resolve the feud, which went dragging on for months. The gunfight wasn't a crucial moment in American history, and it doesn't say anything profound or archetypal about the West – the whole reason it became famous in the first place is that it was such a freakish outlier.

If these two books actually do manage to help deconstruct anything, it's the myth that the West was extraordinarily violent. Violence in that time was much less common than violence is now. Men weren't having quick-draw duels on frontier streets – they couldn't, for eminently practical reasons: The guns they carried were so liable to misfire that only a fool would keep a live round in the chamber. Wyatt Earp himself had never been in a shootout before the O.K. Corral. When shootouts did happen, they were usually confused and unpredictable – and, in general, given the crude and ineffectual weaponry, they were far less lethal than they would be today. The great Tombstone showdown, in its rarity, is eloquent testimony to how things have changed. There was no other gunfight that extreme in the history of the West – and of the eight gunmen, only three received fatal wounds. Wyatt Earp walked away without a scratch.

This article appeared May 21, 2011, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal in print, and online at WSJ.com.

Lee reviewed: Doc by Mary Doria Russell (Random House, 394 pages, $26), and The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster, 392 pages, $27)