Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Bartender's Tale

The Bartender's TaleThe Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ivan Doig knows Montana. He knows its landscapes, it moods. He knows its people, and how they are shaped by the land. And he knows how to weave all of this into a captivating story. And while this book isn’t perhaps his very best, even just a "good" Doig is a near masterpiece.

The title could more accurately be The Bartender’s Son’s Tale, since the story is told through the eyes of Rusty, who is six years old when we first meet him. His father, Tom Harry, is the owner of The Medicine Lodge bar* in the (fictional) town of Gros Ventre in north central Montana. Tom and Rusty’s mother “split the blankets” when Rusty was a baby, and Tom sent Rusty to live with his sister in Arizona. Rusty is bullied by his older cousins, and his future looks bleak, when one day
Tom swoops in and declares that Rusty is to come back to Montana and live with him.

The two of them find a rhythm of life together, and things go along fine until the summer of Rusty’s twelfth year. A new girl, Zoe, moves into town, and she and Rusty discover they are kindred spirits. But even more ominous, a strange (to Rusty) woman arrives with her daughter, Francine, claiming that Tom is the father. Francine begins living with Rusty and Tom, and starts working in the bar, thus disrupting the perfect life Rusty felt he had. All of this takes place in the late 1950's and early 1960's.

Like Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, this is a father-son story, and a coming-of-age story for the son. We see the father through the eyes of his son, which means we don’t know everything about the man – we only know what the son sees. And part of the plot of this book is Rusty’s gradual attempts to wean information from Tom as to what Tom did “before” when he was working at the Fort Peck Dam. (Characters and events from Doig’s earlier work, Bucking the Sun, play a not insignificant role in the plot, but reading that book is not really a necessity before tackling this one.)

Rusty’s admiration of Tom is quite natural, and his curiosity about “grown-up life” also feels genuine. Watching him watch and listen to the people in the bar (via a hidden vent) and then being privy to his attempts to understand everything is part of the charm of the book. But Doig never falls into cheap jokes at the expense of Rusty – he is treated with the seriousness of any of the adult characters, and his questions and unease about his mother and his father’s past permeate the book.

There are, as always with Doig, wonderful characters – Canada Dan, the ne’er-do-well sheepherder; the wife of the local newspaper editor who was a star in early Hollywood; Duane Zane, the local garage owner and his bully of a son. They are all depicted with grit and reality, giving Gros Ventre the feel of any actual small town in Montana.

Doig takes his time unraveling the mysteries in the book: Who is Rusty’s mother? Why does Tom rush off on foolhardy trips to Canada? What really happened at Fort Peck? The narrative meanders along nicely, like a bubbling brook traipsing its way through a valley. It is not rushed, but before long you know a great deal about each person in the book, and you feel what they feel. It reminded me a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird in this regard – both have a young child narrator, who is an outside witness to the goings on in the adult world, and both have many little vignettes of everyday life that gradually reveal the whole picture.

While this is not my favorite Doig book (I think that has to go to English Creek) it’s probably in the top three. Anyone who likes Doig’s work will find this a worthy addition to his oeuvre.

*In the bar, the beer of choice is Great Falls Select, and as a native of Great Falls, I especially enjoyed the book's references to the beer and the town, as well as Rusty and Tom's visit there.

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