Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ivan Doig's Love Song to Butte, MT

New West has posted my review of Ivan Doig's new novel, Work Song.  While the archaic voice of the novel--set in Butte, MT circa 1919--takes some getting used to, in the end I was won over by the sentimental charms of Doig's story and characters:
Morrie Morgan is a character from another time, another place—sent here to our literary world dominated by teen vampires and Kindles to remind us of earlier halcyon days when sentences spread languidly across the page.  His encyclopedic patter is front and center on every page of this book and it’s certainly the make-or-break factor: readers will either wholly buy into the esoteric banter of Doig’s character or they’ll put Work Song down after a few dozen pages and move on to something less….old-fashioned.

But “old-fashioned” is exactly what you should expect when approaching an Ivan Doig novel.  The Montana native has built a literary career on books that celebrate the slow-told story, quaint Dickensian characters, meandering plots and, let’s face it, dialogue that borders on cornpone.  His novels emphasize the spirit of community, the hardscrabble grit of Western pioneers, and the value of heritage.  You don’t come to his books to rapidly turn pages and elevate the blood pressure; you come here to relax and allow yourself to be re-absorbed into a way of life that is, day by day, being lost to strip malls and strip mining.  Reading Ivan Doig is a bit like time travel into the past: you should only make the journey if you’ve packed corsets and celluloid collars, and are ready to leave behind your 21st-century cynicism and short-attention span.
You can read the full review by clicking here.

Going into Work Song, I'd expected to learn more about my newly-adopted town, but I was a little disappointed on that score.  Doig had laid such a patina of fiction over "The Richest Hill on Earth" that I didn't get that familiar frisson of recognition.  In the end, this was okay since it was the story and characters which mattered most.  Which is not to say that the Butte of the novel wasn't authentic or well-researched--it certainly was.  I'd just been expecting to see more of the familiar landmarks: the Pekin Noodle Parlor, the Dumas Brothel, the M&M, or the since-vanished Rocky Mountain Cafe, for instance.  And, yeah, in a completely unrealistic expectation, I'd hoped that Morrie Morgan might stroll down to the Flats and see my house under construction (our Craftsman home was built in 1920).  Hey, a reader can dream, can't he?

On another side note, we just wrapped up the National Folk Festival here in Butte; this year's theme celebrated the mining history of our melting-pot city.  There were talks on the ethnic experience in Butte, mucking and drilling demonstrations, and a session devoted to "Labor Songs."  I wasn't able to attend the latter (too busy enjoying the tap-dancing and Hungarian gypsy music down on Granite Street), but I did wonder if Mr. Doig might have been up there listening to the old miners talk about their "work songs."  It would have been cool to bump into him.

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