Friday, September 07, 2012
"THE BARTENDER'S TALE" by Ivan Doig
My idea about reviews is that you should know where the reviewer is coming from. In this case, I’m quite literally in Valier, which is mentioned in “The Bartender’s Tale” by Ivan Doig, and people here went to high school with him. I myself went to college with Doig at Northwestern University though we have traveled parallel with almost no interaction. After college (1961) I came here and he went to Seattle, where he has stayed.
They say that ex-patriot’s write about the place they left with more clarity and passion than those who stay. In this case, the locals Ivan left behind are a bit ambivalent about his writing, but the rest of the country dearly loves it and considers it the truth. They move to Valier, believing they will find this world, but they are too late.
A continuing motif in this tale is a giant cottonwood referred to as Yddrasil, a Celtic idea entwined with a pool beneath the boughs as well as the depth of the roots. (It's an idea used in "Game of Thrones" -- maybe the Druids are coming.) In the European version the tree is an oak and drops acorns that transmit wisdom into the water where salmon eat them. It used to be on the cover of the Unitarian-Universalist hymnal. In 1961 Choteau (the archetypal community in many Doig books) had a main street lined with these giant cottonwoods. They did not form an arch the way the Great Falls elms did, because the street was wide enough for ox teams to turn around. By now those trees have fallen. Few are left, at least from that generation planted at the founding of the town.
Doig writes about the small town culture and lingo just before the trees were lost, when the recent past was heroic with engineering feats and challenged virtue and the future could not yet be envisioned. People kept up their courage with a little liquid reinforcement and a lot of story swapping. Maybe an embrace or two. The least among them were mostly protected and the most prosperous among them formed a kind of cultured aristocracy based on English notions of how such things should go. There are no Indians or Hutterites.
Many of the jokes and metaphors still float around but I suspect that with Doig’s training as an historian and journalist he was able to accumulate many more. His references to Charlie Russell are ambivalent. He is old-fashioned enough to consider Charlie low-brow but realistic enough to admit he’s a central figure. “Meat’s Not Meat Till It’s in the Pan” (the Charlie Russell print that replaces the customary behind-the-bar nude) was our daily mantra in Browning when things didn’t turn out as expected -- which was often. We didn’t consider that hapless mountain sheep hunter a greenhorn so much as plagued by bad luck. And, of course, taxidermy was Bob Scriver’s stock in trade as much as this hapless bartender depended on “Shellac,” (Great Falls Select beer.) In the Sixties neither mounted animals nor alcohol had taken on the moral onus they have today.
When Doig steps away from his Montana past or from small town doin’s and dilemmas as seen through the eyes of a boy just reaching for adulthood, his readership gets upset. They have the usual fascination with Butte and the Fort Peck dam and love the hoards of gear and equipage some people and organizations have collected and that become a plot point here. But they clearly don’t want to hear about blacks who can sing or even Pacific Northwest early history. It’s too bad because Doig does those things well, too. I’m not sure that every reader is happy with poetic surges of description, but they tolerate it. This book goes more to folk lingo. “The Bartender’s Tale” picks up some characters and plot points from “Bucking the Sun,” a doubling he has done before. People like it, I think. It seems to work.
Doig does include a “naughty” scene in his usual burlesque way of including such things. A naive greenhorn scholar with red hair (at NU both Doig and I had red hair) crawls around in the brush and acquires ticks. The bartender, his son, and a spicy young woman who claims to be his daughter, stand the hapless naked man in the bathtub and scrutinize him for ticks. This is serious business since ticks are vectors of Rocky Mountain Fever. One little varmint is found clinging to the tip of the scholar’s male appendage. Make a metaphor of that!
You won’t find depthy character analysis here and the characters enjoy this stuff as much as the reader does. This is more like Annie Proulx than Norman Maclean, but who cares? I mean, if you like it, who can argue? But this book is not “This House of Sky,” which many consider one of the ten best memoirs of the West along with Wallace Stegner’s “Wolf Willow.” A.B. Guthrie Jr. is the writer that Choteau can really claim as their local biographer over the decades but Doig, circumspect desk-man that he is, doesn’t really compare with the reckless, half-crazed yearnings of alcoholics. (Peter Bowen took refuge there for a whole.) Not better or worse. Different.
Writers should not be pressed into the templates of each other. Each is who he is and writes as he or she does for personal reasons that might yield to analysis and might not. There’s a lot to be said for just accepting a novel without trying to pull it apart. A favorite parlor sport in Valier is figuring out which local people have slipped into Doig’s mind to become characters, but we don’t always agree. Even people who are trying to write accurate history will find that shadows and mirages have crept in.
The idea that a skinny country boy with red hair, the son of a sheepherder -- oh, talk about ambivalence -- a motherless child, can go off to college and become a writer is an American dream as powerful as that of the bull-rider who makes a million dollar breaking his bones. If it’s not so exciting and dramatic, why should the reader complain?
There was a list of waiting Valierian readers at the library. I was lucky to be early. I don’t write the way Doig does or think the way he does or live the way he does, but I am his age and therefore of his generation. They tell me the readers' obsession with Montana writing has worn off and the action is in Portland now, but the ladies who run the Montana humanities scene dearly love Doig. He has plenty of mothers in his life now. Whether that’s an advantage or not remains to be seen. What counts to Doig and his readers is that he is published. And read. Which he is.