Saturday, December 1, 2012

Book Review: The Bartender's Tale

The Bartender's Tale, by Ivan Doig.  Fiction; coming-of-age novel for adults.

I've reviewed Doig's work before, and confessed that I consider him to be one of the best.  I have always focused on Mr. Doig's use of language--which remains masterful.  But this book struck me, as well, with his ability to create twists of events which strike the reader, as they do the characters, as both utterly unexpected and yet somehow inevitable.  As I read, I think I see the unraveling coming from far back on the left, yet when it arrives it is sudden and around the corner on the right.  In fact, early on I thought Doig was going to disappoint me with a book that was too inevitable.

The Bartender's Tale, like many of Doig's books, is the first-person narrative of an adult recalling the pivotal time of his childhood--in this case, the summer when Rusty Harry, son of the legendary owner of the Medicine Wheel, the best bar in Montana, or certainly in Gros Ventre, is twelve.  The year is 1960 (a year which I am forced, however reluctantly, to admit makes this an historical novel), though 1960 in Gros Ventre, Montana, looks little like 1960 in New York or San Francisco.  Or even, as Rusty's new-found 21-year-old half-sister finds, like Reno.  The hippie era has not reached Montana.

Rusty and his father have worked out their own way of living from the time Rusty was six, and Tom Harry came and collected him from the aunt who had been raising him (in Phoenix; and the one really hard thing for me was figuring her as Tom's sister.  But there might be those who look at my brothers and me and wonder if we are really kin.  Lives take different tracks by middle age).  But into their peaceful existence come no end of disruptions: a friend for Rusty, a collector of "lost voices" from the Smithsonian, and above all a never-known daughter for Tom.

How it all works out, and Rusty and his father manage to come out sane, alive, and mostly on an even keel, is the result of the quiet brilliance of Doig's plotting.  That I can't pass the halfway point without becoming hopelessly hooked and unable to stop reading is the result of his even more brilliant twists of the language.

Del Robertson comes from the Smithsonian to try to capture the language of rural Montana before it is lost.  Ivan Doig has done the job for him, smoothly, convincingly, and without apparent effort.  I never know when I finish one of his books if I should be inspired to be a better writer, or should quietly pack away my pens, because I can never equal his mastery.

I found The Bartender's Tale excellent reading, but I'm in a dilemma--I didn't think it was quite as good as The Whistling Season.  That should mean a lower rating, but I think it still deserves five stars.  Call it 4.5, though it might be more reasonable to up WS to 5.5 and leave this its five stars.

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