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Relic memory

Ivan Doig and the distance of myth


In the author’s note prefacing Prairie Nocturne, Ivan Doig maintains that his novel seeks to imbue storytelling with “the closeness of reality and the distance of myth, because if there is no distance you aren’t amazed, and if there is no closeness you aren’t moved.” Accordingly, Doig’s prose—forthright and startlingly lyrical—renders the interlocked destinies of three lives with a close realistic eye while maintaining the awed distance of the watcher and writer. In Prairie Nocturne, Doig the novelist is neither historian nor prophet; instead—and more importantly—he is an explorer of existence.

In a manner reminiscent of Faulkner, Doig’s seventh novel (and ninth book overall) returns to familiar landscapes and old characters. Susan Duff, the indomitable and highly talented young singer from Doig’s Dancing at the Rascal Fair, is a quiet, solemn woman at middle-age, going through the motions of teaching voice to the prim and mediocre daughters of Helena’s high society. After a four-year separation, Susan’s former lover returns for a favor. Wes Williamson, cattle baron and former gubernatorial hopeful, fell from political grace when foes discovered his affair with Susan. Though both tacitly recognize the lingering emotions of their charged breakup, the reader soon learns that Wes seeks something far more unexpected than closure to a past affair: He asks Susan to train his black chauffeur, Monty Rathbun, in the ways of voice and performance.

By 1924, Monty, at least in age, is a peer to Susan and Wes. Having spent the entirety of his life on the Williamson ranch in the Two Medicine country on the eastern range of the Montana Rockies, Monty has played many roles: ranch hand, rodeo clown, and now, chauffeur. Possessed of a deeply powerful voice, Monty accepts Wes’s patronage and undergoes intensive training with Susan. Alongside the history of Wes and Susan’s love affair, Monty’s story unfolds. He is the son of a Buffalo Soldier, a black cavalryman who came west after the Civil War to serve in one of the few jobs offered to newly free men. But the mystery of his father’s disappearance evolves into a tightly wrought subtext that entangles the three, revealing Wes’s elusive motivations, forever altering Susan’s image of her own past, and ultimately deepening the complexity of the rare and haunting spirituals sung by Monty.

The wonderment of Prairie Nocturne is Doig’s ability to bind sensuality and myth with the realities of history. While the Ku Klux Klan, rooted in rural Montana since the end of World War I, threatens the work between the white woman teacher and the black male student, the Harlem Renaissance awaits Monty’s arrival. More than a literary movement, more than a social revolt against racism, the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s exalted and redefined African-American expression. For the first time in American history, African-Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage. Doig again roots myth in reality: Monty’s character is loosely based on the real-life black tenor, Emmanuel Taylor Gordon, who grew up in Doig’s hometown of White Sulphur Springs. The son of a mining camp cook and a former slave, Gordon spent his childhood listening to the stories of the cowboys, miners and prostitutes who populated White Sulphur Springs at the turn of the century. His term as a concert tenor in New York led him to France and England, where he sang spirituals for the upper crust. He died in White Sulphur in 1971.

The development of Monty’s voice becomes the tangible force driving the novel, but there is also a subtle connection to the element of voice that ties not only to Doig’s lyrical style, but also to the unfolding of the novel’s various themes. We open to the routine movements of Susan alone in her bedroom, wishing she “could deal solely with the voices, shapes of sound standing free in the air without human wrappings.” And indeed this is how the novel begins, only with voices and memories from the past, failed hopes, old loves, past alliances. “Music, of course: her half-finished operetta Prairie Tide always awaited, always unnavigable; and the radio set sometimes brought in serenades from unimaginable distances and sometimes madly cackled out static; but the Victrola sang the songs of others perfectly on command, restorative in itself to a teacher of voice.” The novel builds upon that initial simplicity with a seeming cacophony of themes beginning with the human heart and entangling with racism, age-old clashes over land, and the history of the American West. Voices in Prairie Nocturne alternately portend the futures of three lives and hearken back to singing ghosts amidst abandoned homesteads and deserted forts.

While writing his first book, This House of Sky, Doig maintained that the persistent urge to write the book was the realization that he “was a relic. And the son of another relic. And the grandson of yet a third relic.” It is no mistake, then, that in his ninth book Doig continues to explore those moments in memory that determine our lives. What begins in the present as an old love affair spirals into a past and future that, when deciphered, show the inextricable connection we have to those who shape our values in the search for intimacy, independence and love. Ivan Doig, who in his mid-60s has been writing for more than 40 years, examines the myth of existence in Prairie Nocturne.

And existence is not simply what has already occurred. Existence is the realm of human possibilities: everything that a human can become, everything he or she is capable of. The job at which Doig succeeds is in uncovering the mysterious grandness of the possibilities in these three unforgettable characters.

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