Seattle author Ivan Doig is widely regarded as a master storyteller of the American west. “A Bartender’s Tale,” chosen by the American Library Association “Booklist” as one of last year’s 10 best works of historical fiction, adds to his reputation.
Doig became prominent with the publication of the “McCaskill trilogy:” “English Creek” (1984), “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” (1987) and “Ride with Me, Mariah Montana” (1990). The books followed a family during Montana’s first hundred years as a state.
The former journalist’s prose is absorbing and very evocative of place. His characters are interesting, usually colorful and have an engaging way of reappearing in subsequent novels. But, for my money, it’s the stories. Simply put, Ivan Doig creates engrossing, entertaining yarns.
Like most of Doig’s 12 novels, “A Bartender’s Tale” is set in Montana and casts fictional characters against a background of historical fact. The narrator, Rusty, relates his story of the summer of 1960. He is 12 and living in the small town of Gros Ventre. Six years earlier his father, Tom Harry, retrieved him from the custody of an uncaring aunt in Phoenix. The two of them are now living the small-town bachelor life. Tom runs the Medicine Lodge, one of two saloons in town, and father and son live in a large two-story house across the alley from the back of the “the joint.” But, as Rusty says, “the house was where we slept and kept our clothes. We lived at the Medicine Lodge.”
In the book’s first sentence, Rusty asserts, “My father was the best bartender who ever lived.” He was not “the absolute best father of all time. … Yet, as peculiar a pair as we made, the bachelor saloonkeeper with a streak of frost in his black pompadour and the inquisitive boy who had been an accident between the sheets, in the end I would not have traded my involuntary parent for a more standard model.” Rusty is curious, perhaps even troubled, by the fact that Tom brushes off questions about his son’s past, including what happened to the boy’s mother. However, as the events of the summer unfold, the truth — “The Bartender’s Tale” — is pried out of Tom, to Rusty’s surprise.
Tom spends his time in the dark interior of his small-town saloon, surrounded by animal heads high on the walls, including a one-eyed bison over the door. He pours a quality drink and polishes the long oak bar with his towel. He also listens intently to the tales of his clientele, who include ranchers, sheepherders on a binge, day-tripping tourists, the editor of the local paper and almost everyone else in the area. As Tom lends an ear to his patrons, so does Rusty. The boy does this from the adjoining room, following the happenings in the Lodge through a vent, unseen by the bar’s patrons. The room, also used for storage, is crammed with things Tom has taken as collateral from patrons unable to pay their bills in cash: saddles, bridles, axes, shovels, bedrolls, rain slickers, Stetson hats, tires, and a guitar — apparently, at least one of every kind of item of value owned by the inhabitants of Two Medicine country.
Early that summer of 1960, a girl named Zoe moves to town with her parents, who have come to run a restaurant. Her fertile imagination matches Rusty’s, and the two become fast friends. They share time at the vent, creatively consider the items in the storage room, adopt a language shorthand all their own, try to solve the town’s mysteries, have their meals together at her parents’ restaurant and help the wife of the newspaper editor prepare her lines for a play in a nearby town. If they were older, they probably would realize they were also falling in love.
The plot also involves several other characters. The silver-blonde Proxy appears without warning from Tom’s past. She was a “taxi dancer” at a legendary saloon he owned in Fort Peck when dam construction created a boom town. She says she now works in Hollywood and is a stand-in for Marilyn Monroe. To Tom’s consternation, Proxy comes and goes as she apparently has done at times in the past. Because of the way she treats him, Rusty wonders whether she is his mother.
On one of her visits, Proxy surprises Tom and Rusty by introducing Francine, who wants to be called “France, like the country,” as Tom’s daughter. Francine has been at loose ends, and Proxy convinces Tom to take her on as a trainee. She is a decent bartender, but stuff keeps turning up missing when she’s in charge of the bar.
Delano, named in honor president Roosevelt, is clean-cut and right out of college. In Montana on behalf of the Library of Congress to make recordings of lingua Americana, he drives a VW bus he calls “the Gab Lab.” His enthusiasm for his assignment is boundless, and he prevails upon Tom to pave the way for interviews with the “mudjacks” who return to Fort Peck for a reunion marking the anniversary of building the dam.
As unlikely as it may seem, the story of the summer of 1960 culminates at the annual fishing derby, the event of the season in Gros Ventre. The derby is held at the reservoir, and the day unfolds unpredictably, dramatic in more ways than one.
Doig has recently published “Sweet Thunder,” a novel about labor unrest in Butte, Mont., in the 1920’s and a sequel to his “Work Song.” One review said, “Friendship, loyalty, love, politics and the pitched labor wars of the early 20th century all come to bear on this epic tale.” Sounds like another of Ivan Doig’s books that his fans won’t want to miss.