The Bartender’s Tale
By Ivan Doig
Guest review by O. Alan Weltzien
In his native Montana and adopted Washington State, Ivan Doig remains a consistent force in fiction, particularly in his preferred mode of historical novel. For many who’ve followed American fiction in the past three decades, Doig represents a model of predictability and quality. His novels rarely disappoint and his newest—number eleven—displays many of those qualities Doig readers prize.
The Bartender's Tale is set in 1960, and Doig presents small-town Montana a half-century ago with myriad realistic details. This novel makes the reader taste Great Falls Select Beer (“shellac”), and references are made to such blockbuster films as The Alamo and GI Blues, the latter a schlock Elvis Presley movie. Doig also includes more than a few references to The Misfits, the final film for Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift.
Given the size of his oeuvre, Doig famously keeps charts of all his characters. By this stage of his career, he’s unafraid of what scholars call intertextuality. The protagonist of The Whistling Season recurs in Work Song, set a decade later (1919) and a couple of hundred miles south, in Butte. For The Bartender’s Tale, Doig returns readers to his beloved Gros Ventre, a fictionalized Dupuyer on the Rocky Mountain Front and primary setting of his Montana trilogy, particularly English Creek. The Bartender’s Tale takes place a scant generation after the McGaskills fateful summer of 1939 (English Creek’s setting).
But Doig mostly borrows from his primary Depression novel, Bucking the Sun, to amplify his newest fiction. The protagonist’s father, Tom Harry, used to run the Blue Eagle saloon over near Fort Peck Dam during those dam-building years. Tom has the Great Depression stamped in the furrows of his face and the run of his voice, and from the Blue Eagle he learned his trade and raised the stake to buy Gros Ventre’s Medicine Lodge saloon, legendary watering hole up and down the Rocky Mountain front. Additionally, his sometime fling and former taxi dancer, Proxy, had been married to Bucking the Sun’s Darius Duff, and the fruit of their unhappy marriage, Francine, apprentices awhile under Tom in the Medicine Lodge. Got this all straight? If that’s not enough, the new novel alludes, in tantalizing detail, to the opening and closing “mystery” that drives Bucking the Sun: that unmarried couple, naked and cavorting in the truck that’s eventually fished out of Fort Peck reservoir.
Among his many talents, Doig knows how to write children and young adults, and The Bartender’s Tale hinges upon Tom’s son, Rusty (Russell—named after painter, Charlie Russell) Harry, who’s going through a lot in his twelfth summer. Doig lightly alludes to Rusty as a middle-aged narrator looking back half a century to the summer of 1960, when he’s on the cusp of adolescence and trying to figure out his father and his own identity. The novel convincingly evokes 1960 as a pivotal year, marked by an especially tough winter (a “thirty-year winter”), for example. He develops one close friend, Zoe, his sidekick in mimicry and imaginative adventure--and in the hasty Epilogue, not as a complete surprise, his wife and thespian partner in the subsequent decades. Rusty’s understanding of his father and himself depends, in an old cliché, upon his discovery of his long-gone mother’s identity. For a while, he mistakenly worries that the foxy Proxy, still seductive and self-assured in her late forties (and a stand-in for Monroe in some Misfits scenes, in Doig’s tantalizing details), is his mother—and therefore, the attractive, flippant, troubled twenty-one-year old Francine, his half-sister—but the novel’s climax disabuses Rusty of these women and their ostensible kinship.
Doig opens the novel with Rusty’s full-throttle admiration for his father:
My father was the best bartender who ever lived. No one really questioned that in a town like Gros Ventre, glad of any honor, or out in the lonely sheep camps and bunkhouses and other parched locations of the Two Medicine country, where the Medicine Lodge saloon was viewed as a nearly holy oasis.
If I have any beef with The Bartender’s Tale, it’s with Tom’s understated presence, as though the quiet bartender cliché carries over his personality as father and friend. Tom is given to brevity, mostly, and his talk runs towards tough-guy epigrams as though he stepped out of a film noir script. Talking runs against his grain, it seems, at least he’s more silent that Rusty and this reader would like. It’s hard to fathom his interior, though when necessary, he “spills the beans,” to cite one of his own expressions. Viewed close up from the loving eyes of his only son, this dad does what he can, and he is a damned good bartender, but at times I wanted more of him.
The Two Medicine saloon, and the contiguous house, form the novel’s main setting. Midway through the story, the Harrys, along with folklorist Del Robertson, almost an adopted older son, drive to Fort Peck for a reunion of the “mudjacks.” The Fort Peck scenes allow us to scan Tom’s past, and the generous shadow of Doig’s earlier 1996 novel. Otherwise, we stay close to—or inside—the nicely appointed, old-fashioned (even for 1960) bar and its back room. That room becomes Rusty’s precinct as a vent connects the two, and he and Zoe eavesdrop where they aren’t allowed. That back room, filled with paraphernalia given Tom in lieu of money for drink, becomes both museum and connection to the wondrous world of adulthood, the vent serving as the pathway of his imagination:
The voices in the vent still seem so vivid to me, so distinct. It is a sensation I even yet find hard to describe , how those overheard stories kept me occupied, in the truest sense of that word, taking up residence within me like talkative lodgers in the various corners of my mind.
The reader develops a vivid sympathy for Rusty and Zoe’s privileged vantage, as though we listen, hushed, alongside this pair:
Attic of our imaginations, the big old expanse and its holdings had provided us with treasures beyond measure—costumery, an expanded vocabulary, a hundred bits we did, and of course, the listening post into the adult world.
In the character of earnest Del (Delano) Robertson, fresh from the East coast, Doig paints a convincing young folklorist, under the spell of Alan Lomax, eager to capture the sounds and stories of blue collar, Northern Rockies Americana. Robertson symbolically presents Doig’s own role as an unofficial oral historian, capturing the phonetics and idioms of his characters. Doig is unafraid of punning and delivers some choice idioms of his own through that college grad, Del. The Two Medicine is always called, by Tom and Rusty and others, “the joint.” When Tom contemplates selling the joint, Doig turns epigrammatic, after Hamlet: “‘The time is out of joint,’ Del brooded as if he were about to cry in his beer, ‘and the joint is out of time.’” Later, answering Zoe’s queries about his previous marriage prospects, Del answers by paraphrasing the end of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”: he “intoned in that voice-of-doom style of old newsreels, ‘This is the way the world ends, not with a whim but a banker.’”
Doig likely modelled the climax—the dam failure at Rainbow Reservoir on the day of the annual Gros Ventre Fishing Derby—on the notorious Swift Reservoir and Two Medicine Dam failure (northern Montana) of 1964. After this crisis, Doig hustles to his final page, the mystery of Rusty’s maternity predictably if painfully revealed by Tom.
Whether a Doig veteran or newcomer, the reader will enjoy the ride—and would probably enjoy sipping a ”shellac” and shooting the breeze with that master bartender, with his black pompadour hair and its “streak of frost.”
Dr. O. Alan Weltzien is the author of A Father and an Island: Reflections on Loss, the poetry chapbook To Kilimanjaro and Back, numerous articles on the literature of the West, and edited The Norman Maclean Reader. He teaches English at the University of Montana-Western.