Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #87: The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig

Doig hits another home run! The Bartender’s Tale is a great coming-of-age story peopled with colorful characters against a backdrop filled with history, humor, and pathos.

Once again, Montana plays home to Doig’s tale, this one centered around Tom Harry, famous owner of the Medicine Lodge bar in Gros Ventre and, previously, of the Blue Eagle bar in Fort Peck which had serviced many of the 10,000 employees of the U.S. government in the 1930s brought into that tiny speck of northern Montana when the Fort Peck Dam was built under the auspices of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Tom’s first wife left not long after their son Rusty was born, and the boy spent his first six years being raised in Arizona by an aunt whose sons made life a living hell for the little boy. But then Tom reclaimed Rusty, and father and son dedicated themselves to forging a life around the bar which was the centerpiece of their existence and Gros Ventre’s last refuge, as well. Rusty’s life is happier, but still a lonely one until Zoe moves into town with her parents, and the two children become as one, sharing a total fascination with life that is as exuberant and optimistic as Doig himself.

Tom is getting ready to sell the bar and create a more normal life for himself and his son when Proxy, a former lover from the Fort Peck days, arrives on the scene with a 21-year-old daughter in tow with the same ink-black hair that Tom and Rusty share. Proxy wants Tom to teach their daughter Francine how to run the bar, and ultimately take it over, and life suddenly becomes very complicated for Tom and Rusty. Thrown into the mix is Del, a student of  “lingua Americana,” a “word catcher” from the East who latches on to Tom in hope of getting access to the many and varied characters who have flowed in and around Tom’s life and who represent the last vestiges of a dying language as Montana moves increasingly into the modern era.

Rusty and Zoe are a bridge between those two eras, and are as endearingly clever as Paul Milliron was in Doig’s “The Whispering Season.”  The reader finds oneself yearning for the simpler days of their childhood, and yet sees them growing and changing as the century matures. The Bartender’s Tale is a thoroughly delightful novel as nostalgic for the past as it is hopeful for the future.