Like Faulkner and his beloved Yoknapatawpha County, Ivan Doig, who’s written 10 novels—the 11th, The Bartender’s Tale, comes out from Riverhead—and three works of non-fiction, most notably his memoir, This House of Sky (Harcourt, 1978) spends most of his time on the page in his home state of Montana. “I’ve hung on to the country and community,” he says, though his characters do venture far afield, from Harlem to Vietnam. Doig himself now lives in Seattle.
It’s not just Big Sky Country that weaves its way through Doig’s fiction. His characters blend into the background of one book only to step into the limelight years later. In Bartender, the saloonkeeper, Tom Harry, has poured drinks in three earlier novels, starting with 1984’s English Creek (Scribner). Every eight years or so, Tom crops up, liquor bottle and shot glass in hand, ready to lend a sympathetic ear to local ranchers. The idea for Bartender—which chronicles the summer as Tom’s 12-year-old son, Rusty, navigates adolescence and helps his father at the Medicine Lodge bar—started, says Doig, “way back when I was about Rusty’s size and in bars with my dad.” Doig’s father would go all over Montana looking for men to help him with sheep ranching and Doig, like Rusty, was an only child, so he was always with his father.
Of course, the young Doig had to stay in front of the bar, which got his imagination going. “I started thinking,” he says, “what if I could be in the back of the joint? and combined that with the story of an only child—like me—being raised by a challenged but ultimately resourceful single father. That’s something I haven’t gone back to since This House of Sky and something I’ve never done in fiction.” Spreading his hands wide as if to show the endless possibilities, Doig explains that “it all comes from the writer’s version of abracadabra: what if?”
One thing that Doig never questions is his pursuit of the beauty of language. “Norman Maclean talked about the poetry under the prose,” he says, “which is something I’m always conscious of in the way I use vernacular.” He looks chagrined when he admits that it wasn’t until this book that he thought to call such regional dialect “lingua Americana.” In Bartender, Doig introduces the young and chipper Delano “Del” Robertson, who arrives in the tiny town of Gros Ventre, Mont., as an emissary of the “Missing Voices” project, a fictional venture similar to Alan Lomax’s real-life travels following Lead Belly and his blues across America. And in keeping with Doig’s tradition of writing his own interstitial poetry, folk songs, and other scraps of nonprose that appear in his books, “those blues Del has are things I made up,” he says.
Doig has “always been interested in catching the homemade language.” He’s particularly pleased with his invention of the word “swuft”—which roughly translates to “swell”—and is used by Rusty and his partner-in-crime/first love Zoe throughout Bartender. When asked if he considered giving Rusty the obligatory male best friend, the one who gets shunted to the side when Rusty and Zoe grow closer, he returns to Norman Maclean, a friend and literary mentor, and points out that Maclean “absolutely ignored the Depression” in A River Runs Through It (Univ. of Chicago, 1976). “This took place in the 1930s,” he chuckles, “and you’d never know that anybody had to go to work or worried about a job.” It’s what he calls McLean’s “beautiful ruefulness” that Doig finds himself returning to as a writer. “Do what’s necessary to tell the strong, good story,” he says. “And if doesn’t fit with the way you’re supposed to do it, all the better. So no best friend for Rusty! Except Zoe.”
Telling the strong, good story about Doig means breaking him out of the box where he’s so often placed: the Western Writer. “I think that’s so silly,” Doig says, shaking his head and rubbing his beard, streaks of red still visible in the white. “Montana is where I happen to be from, but my characters go off into as big a world as there is. It’s just that Montana is the language my fingers speak.” He’s quick to note that no one would dare label Eudora Welty simply a Southern Writer. “I try to use the whole orchestra when I write,” explains Doig, “not just the tympani of regionalism. I think the point is that a writer can use that big, deep place that we know from the time our feet hit the ground. Writers like Tolstoy, Joyce, Faulkner. I count myself in that same tradition of writing about a place in stories that we all hope are about the larger vistas of life.”
Jordan Foster is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.