Wednesday, June 30, 2010
IVAN DOIG, VALIER HIGH SCHOOL ALUMN
If you go to YouTube and type in “Ivan Doig” you’ll find some good historic photos of Montana and Ivan.
Ivan Doig graduated from high school right here in this village in 1957 and hasn’t been back since. I am the same age he is, graduated from high school in Portland, OR, the same year. We both attended Northwestern University, class of 1961, Ivan in journalism and history; myself in theatre and English. We must have been in the same B43 comped-out English lecture class from Bergan Evans, so big a class it was in an auditorium. My roommate, Gwen Cline, dated his roommate, Ralph Votapek. (Yes, the Tchiakovsky pianist.) When we graduated, Ivan went on for a master’s degree. I came near here, to Browning, Montana, to teach high school. My step-daughter (when I married here) had been Ivan’s schoolmate, though she was a little older.
Both Doig and I write and you might think we’d have a lot in common, both being Scots and word-people and connected to this place. You’d be dead wrong. Ivan does the right thing. I do the wrong thing. No use in telling you to do the wrong thing, so let me tell you the right things that Ivan does.
1. He married very well indeed. His wife is beautiful, intelligent, educated, a college professor, willing to work during the lean years when Ivan was writing but no money was coming in, willing to get in the car with Ivan and a big pile of copies of “This House of Sky” to hand-sell them across Montana. She is very much the model of some of Ivan’s excellent heroines.
2. He didn’t stay rural. The trouble with rural is not that they’re stupid, not that they don’t appreciate good writing, or anything like that. The problem with rural is that there are not enough people. In Seattle Ivan can do speaking and reading engagements in great numbers without having to drive more than an hour. To speak that much in Montana he’d have to cover hundreds and hundreds of miles, adding the costs of gas and motels to whatever other costs there are.
3. He actively sells his books. He maintains a website “platform” with a calendar on which he posts his speaking engagements. He doesn’t hide unless he’s actually writing and needs not to be interrupted. He’s an engaging personality.
4. He got into the book business before the collapse. When he started out in the Sixties, books were still revered, publishers still nurtured their authors, people still read books.
5. He writes what people want to read. “Winter Brothers” and “The Sea Runners” -- let alone “Prairie Nocturne” -- did not appeal to his core audience. It was “This House of Sky” and the “English Creek” sequence that sold like mad. A good gold miner doesn’t dig where there is no gold ore.
6. People around Valier do read these books and they do like Ivan’s books, but they always think maybe they know a little more about it than Ivan does. The people who really praise and glorify these books are the ones who know the least about this country. They know what they think they know, which is a glowing country of stalwart people, and they like that high-class “lapidary” near-poetry prose, and they have no way to tell that it’s a construct. Over-simplified. A little on the Mark Twain side.
7. To Ivan’s credit he brings in a bit of history and he generally does his research. He is quite like Annie Proulx because his stories come from the library or the newspaper rather than from being at the rodeo, in the bar, on the rez, etc. (Let’s not talk about the rez. That’s a sore spot -- not for me, for Ivan. He used to say it was up to Jim Welch to cover that beat.) Things happened, likely could happen, but Ivan wasn’t there. (It was more confusing to be there.)
8. So far as I know, Ivan’s real life has been regular, secure, and happy. He seems to be a middle-class achiever and proud of it, the same as his readers.
9. His books are available as speaking books in CD’s, cassettes and audio downloads. These are sold at the same chain stores that always keep his books in stock: Borders, Barnes and Noble, Amazon and Indiebound.
10. Ivan is book-club and classroom friendly, providing discussion guides, questions to consider, reader’s guides, personal notes and all the other paraphernalia meant to make the reader feel part of the initiated group.
In short, this basically self-contained, quiet and even shy man has created a niche for himself where people feel they know him, though there’s very little unstructured interaction; where his reputation is as an expert on Montana while for half a century he has actually lived on the Pacific Coast in the great mega-urban sprawl around Seattle; where he highly values family but has none. It is possible that the current running through the books is one of yearning, a seeking to reconcile roots with blossoms. Like Wallace Stegner, he was a Westerner who was taught to seek culture in the city. “Wolf Willow” (Stegner’s memoir) and “This House of Sky” are among the very top Western memoirs, so they are ironic. They do not glorify the West. They’re quite aware of why they left and what they found in the city, which was culture, respect, ways to build their professions.
The funky ones -- the ones who love the West and stay, managing somehow to find books and teachers and now sitting late into the night at their computers -- will probably never make it into print with their books. They might not write any. They might sing songs instead -- that’s always happened. They might write wonderful letters that no one saves. Nowadays they blog. They’re likely to BE what Ivan writes about. So which is the right thing and which is the wrong thing or doesn’t it matter at all?
I don’t think Ivan and I should ask each other. I think it goes back to our high school days, when his high school teacher taught him to be proper and cultured and my high school teacher taught me stagecraft and tragedy. (She married an older man in Nevada and had lots of adventures.) Though we sat through B43 English together and both laughed when someone put goldfish in Bergan Evans’ pitcher of ice water, we heard with different ears. In 1961 I lit out for Indian Territory. He didn’t. That’s the bottom line.