Ivan Doig’s new novel is a poignant story of a young boy, dropped off as an infant to be raised by an aunt in Phoenix. He never knew his mother and rarely encountered his father until he was five years old. Suddenly, with no notice or explanation, Tom Harry arrives to hustle his son along with his meager belongings into an aging car to bear him 1,500 miles to a rough-and-tumble Montana town for life in the Medicine Lodge Saloon. This might rightfully have been considered kidnapping in later years, but it was 1953 and the dashing, middle-aged saloon keeper decided that his young son Rusty needed a father. They struggle at first, but soon a strong bond develops between the bachelor father and abandoned boy.
"Doig is one of those gifted writers whose unique voice leaves indelible images of time and place through characters so vividly drawn that they linger long after you close the book."
With few children his age in the remote town, Rusty spends his lonely childhood building model airplanes and helping out behind the scenes from an elevated back room overlooking the saloon. His unconventional social education arrives through a louvered air vent where he eavesdrops on conversations and watches the locals, from the mayor and the local newspaper editor to the scruffy sheep herders, unwind at the end of the day under the hospitality of Tom Harry.
With the arrival of the summer of 1960 and Rusty’s 12th birthday, neither he nor his father recognizes that they are on the cusp of a decade that will herald an American turning point. The innocence and provincial ways of the mid-20th century are soon to be erased as post-war expansion and urbanization gradually changes the American landscape.
The events of that summer will also forever change Rusty, his father and their small town. The arrival of a café owner couple and their daughter, Zoe, introduces Rusty to a best friend and partner in new adventures. Soon to follow, a flamboyant taxi dancer from his father’s colorful past as a barkeep in a 1930s Depression-era boom town arrives in a flashy red Cadillac with a young woman she introduces to Tom as the daughter he never knew he had. Rusty’s coming of age will coincide with the adolescent fervor of an evolving society.
Ivan Doig grew up in western Montana, working as a ranch hand alongside his father. After publication of a collection of his poems, he was encouraged to continue writing. He recognized that an education was the only way to escape a life with no future, so he made his way to Northwestern University to earn enough degrees, including a PhD, to go into teaching. The desire to write remained his calling and Montana remained the home of his heart. So it is that chronicling the western way of life has become his trademark. His books cannot be pigeonholed as westerns, even as they are stories about westerners, told in their own lingua america. It is no coincidence that a pivotal character in THE BARTENDER’S TALE is a young man with a tape recorder whose quest it is to capture the expressions and times that are rapidly being lost to a homogeneous blend of sounds and lifestyles. We hear in those voices the echoes of the mid-America in which many of us grew up.
Doig is one of those gifted writers whose unique voice leaves indelible images of time and place through characters so vividly drawn that they linger long after you close the book. The winner of several prestigious awards, among them the Wallace Stegner Award for Western Literature, Doig would be wrongly pigeonholed as a writer in the Western genre. His name does not trip lightly on the tongue, yet if you’ve read any of his 10 novels or three nonfiction books, the temptation to snatch it up is almost irresistible. If the only place you can find him in your local bookstore or library is under “Westerns,” it is an oversight of the bookseller, not the author.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on August 24, 2012