In my last post I hazarded some remarks about my nearly lifelong and possibly mistaken effort to elevate the Tombstone/ OK Corral story into art via an immense novel I recently completed which I call Riding the Hearse. In that post I acknowledged at least one major writer who made the same effort some years ago and who enjoyed a deal of success and prestige as a result. This was the late Oakley Hall, whose 1958 novel Warlock, a masterfully fictionalized retelling of the Tombstone story, earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination; and, in case any reader continues to doubt its merit and desires higher proof, I might mention that Hall's novel was republished in 2006 by The New York Review of Books as a classic of American literature. Thomas Pynchon has called Warlock an "agonized epic" whose "deep sensitivity" makes it "one of the best American novels."
It was Warlock that caught my eye when I was a college freshman visiting a bookstore in High Point, North Carolina, in the far-off year of its publication. It in fact was the very work that lit the improbable fire in me which has yet to flicker out, which led me inexorably over the many years since to return again and again to what became Riding the Hearse. And while I am ready to admit that my book may not be all I wish it to be, I can unhesitatingly agree with Pynchon that Warlock is one fine read, a tragedy of epic dimensions and probably one of the finest novels ever published in America.
I mention Hall's book because he not only wrote Warlock but also many other novels, plus a libretto for an opera based on Wallace Stegner's classic Angle of Repose. Further, he was director of the writing program at the University of California at Irvine and a co-founder of the respected writing conference known as the Community of Writers at SquawValley. New York author Robert Stone, himself a Pulitzer finalist, has written, in his introduction to the new edition, "rereading Warlock I found again the light I remembered, an afternoon brightness, a clarity that is, I think, the essence of good realism. In an almost literal way it illuminated the characters. When it focused on individual lives it seemed to vary its distance from each...as though there existed a different extension of sympathy or withholding of it for different individuals in the narrative. The light I...recognized...as western light. Big Sky light. This is good realism."
Hall was not alone among major literary figures who in one way or another have taken up the Tombstone story as a pattern for profound examination of large and important themes. In 2000 British-born novelist, poet, essayist, critic and memoirist Paul West, known for his startling erudition, marvelous working vocabulary and winner of numerous international literary awards, published OK: The Corral, the Earps and Doc Holliday. Though it earned mixed reviews, OK at least illustrated how the Tombstone tale could lay hold of the imagination of one of the finest writers of our time. Similarly, Bruce Olds, in the front rank of America's postmodernists, in 2001 published Bucking the Tiger, a densely-imagined, challengingly written account of Wyatt Earp's friend Doc Holliday, set in the Tombstone period.
Like OK, Bucking the Tiger had a style that was probably too daring to win widespread popular approval, but it underlined the fascination the Tombstone tale can have for a recognized literary artist. Nor were West and Olds the last to pick up the baton, or--figuratively--the six-shooter. Just this year, Larry McMurtry, in The Last Kind Words Saloon, retold the Earp-Clanton-McLaury saga in his inimitably terse and acrid style. And Mary Doria Russell, widely-acclaimed author of 2011's Doc, a novelized account of the life of Holliday up to his time in Dodge City, Kansas, is reported currently at work on a novel about the OK Corral affair.
I think the fact that some of our best writers have considered the Tombstone events as somehow fundamental to an understanding of not only the American character but the universal human experience gives testimony to its value as a subject of serious literature. While Riding the Hearse may not be worthy of mention in the same breath with the works I have cited, I hope at I have at least made a case for revisiting that tragic and compelling drama.