I’m a sucker for novels that take place in the West or the Midwest – the more rural, the better. I’m also drawn to stories that take place in the 1960s, the era in which I spent my formative years and remember very well.
The Bartender’s Tale, by Ivan Doig, met these two criteria, and more. Surprisingly, I have never read anything else by Doig, who is quite prolific. Because The Bartender’s Tale is my first Doig novel, I can’t comment on whether I think this is one of his better or worse books, or whether it is written in a typical manner. But standing alone, it was a good read.
Having said this, I will tell you that I can’t remember reading a slower book. I seriously felt as though I would read and read and read, and then realize I had only read five pages. Whaaaaat? I’m not sure why, though I admit that Doig uses a lot of words to get his point across. Still, I started paying attention to whether or not a good editor would have been in order, and I decided I would miss anything an editor would have taken out.
It was like jogging in quicksand, but enjoying a great view while I ran.
There is not a lot of plot to describe. Much like the book I reviewed last week, the narrator was an adult looking back on his younger years, in this case, concentrating on the summer of 1960. Rusty has never known his mother, and his father sent him to live with his aunt and her bratty kids in Phoenix from the time he was a baby until his father seemingly inexplicably came to get him at the age of 6. He takes him to live with him in a small town in Montana. Tom Harry owns the Medicine Lodge, an old-fashioned neighborhood bar, and he and Rusty make this their home.
A lot of things happen that summer of 1960, and we are lucky enough to be introduced to some of the funniest and most likeable characters you can imagine. By the end of that summer, Rusty has made a best friend, figured out what he wants to be when he grows up, met a young historian who will change his life, learned a lot about his dad (whom he always was convinced was going to up and leave him again) and grew to trust him completely. He comes to understand the ins and outs of running a good bar and the importance of such an institution to a small town. Unlike last week’s novel, this story isn’t about a life-changing event, but more about how all of life’s events add up to make you who you are.
I measure all dialogue against Kent Haruf’s dialogue in Plainsong. Doig’s dialogue is similar in that he captures the local dialect very well (or at least it seems that he does). And it really is the dialogue, as opposed to the storyline, that drives the novel. But, where Haruf’s dialogue is succinct, Doig’s characters often seem to talk on and on. That might be the difference between being a rancher in eastern Colorado and being a bartender. Still, I loved (and will start using) the phrase “ess of a bee”. I also will begin immediately using the phrase “don’t put beans up your nose” with my grandchildren to relay to them to stay out of trouble.
For me, the best part about The Bartender’s Tale was the story about the bar itself, and about Tom Harry as the bartender. For example:
“I needed only to stretch my neck a little to peek……..and see and hear everything as my father lived up to his reputation as the best bartender imaginable, his shirt and apron crisp as table linen, his black bow tie, lending an air of dignity, his magical hands producing a drink almost before it was thought of, his head tilted just so to take in whatever topic was being introduced on the other side of the bar.”
The Bartender’s Tale is a slow-moving story about good, kind, honest Westerners with whom I could be friends. Rusty learns a lot during that summer, but mostly he learns the importance of family and friends.