If Montana literature were a religion, Ivan Doig might be its pope. The author of 13 venerated novels, he has written a trilogy about Montana's statehood, a turn-of-the-century Butte novel called Work Song, and This House of Sky, a memoir of his boyhood growing up in a raw and magnificent landscape. Doig takes a different tack in The Bartender's Tale. It's a drama set in what he calls "the Two Medicine country," and particularly in a small town called Gros Ventre at the Medicine Lodge saloon.
The tale begins in 1954 when Doig's 6-year-old protagonist, Rusty Harry, is retrieved in Phoenix by his father, Tom, and brought to Gros Ventre where "the bachelor saloonkeeper with a streak of frost in his black pompadour and the inquisitive boy who had been an accident between the sheets" take up residence behind Tom's bar. By 1960, Rusty is employed as a swamper in the Medicine Lodge, spending his time foraging through the collected memorabilia in the back room of the establishment, and listening at a vent behind the bar to colorful stories with his new friend, Zoe.
That summer, Tom and Rusty's easygoing existence is shattered by the arrival of Tom's former fling, Proxy, and their pseudo-hippie daughter, Francine. At this point, on page 222, the real bartender's tale begins, as Francine learns the intricacies of bartending, Tom negotiates a string of uncertainties about his watering-hole, and Rusty, on the verge of exiting adolescence, tries to solve the mysteries of adult behavior.
Chaucerian in scope but utterly Doigian in execution, The Bartender's Tale is another of the novelist's treasuries of characters and character. Tom and Rusty are believable creations, as reliably human as members of an extended family. Even his secondary castnewspaper editor Bill Reinking, multiple-divorcee Vera Simms and Canada Dan, a hard-drinking sheepherderare vibrant. Especially well-wrought is the nebbish Del Robertson, a sort of Studs Terkel stand-in and partly deaf interviewer, who's come west to gather audio for a Library of Congress "Missing Voices" series.
Likewise, Doig's description of scenes in Rusty's adolescent voice is incredibly sculpted, from a fishing derby fiasco, to an awards ceremony for Tom sponsored by Select ("Shellac") beer, to a disastrous reunion of mudjacks at Fort Peck. It's an old-fashioned page-turner, intimately affecting right up through the pile of unexpected surprises in the book's final chapter. Wedged in between the Depression and the cultural shifts of the '60s and '70s (Tom keeps a poster of FDR on the wall, alongside that of JFK), the book captures the epoch's mood and vocabulary with aplomb. Less sweeping, perhaps, than his previous works, it resonates in its own epic way. Rusty rummages through the detritus of obstinate drinkers as Del Robertson records the unrecorded for posterity, and Tom plays his role as the ultimate "listening bartender." All of these elements allow Doig to be multifaceted in his depiction of a patrilineal relationship and regional history.
The Bartender's Tale feels more like eavesdropping than mere reading. "It is said," Rusty muses, "that it takes a good storyteller to turn ears into eyes," and that's true of Doig, too.