The Bartender's Tale: A Refreshing Fictional Draft

The Bartender’s Tale (2012)
By Ivan Doig
Riverhead, 387 pages

Confession time: I adored the novel The Dog Stars so much that I thought I’d check out an earlier work by the author. Except I remembered that author as Ivan Doig when, in fact, it was Peter Heller. If my reward is a book as good as Doig's The Bartender’s Tale, I should have such fortuitous memory lapses more often.

Call this one a 20th century Chaucer tale for Stetsons and mudslingers. It’s set in Montana, where Doig (1939-2015), spent much of his life. His protagonist is indeed a bartender, not a rancher, cowboy, mountaineer, or other Big Sky type. And it’s set in 1938 and 1960, which the historically minded will recognize as transitional times, the first near the end of the Great Depression and the second when the nation stood on the cusp of social, cultural, and political change. The eponymous character is Tom Harry, though his adult son Rusty narrates the story as a remembrance of what he experienced and discovered as a 12-year-old.

Rusty isn’t a happy camper when we meet him ensconced with his aunt and bullying cousins in Phoenix. He knows nothing of his mother, and Tom planted Rusty in Arizona until he could get established. Rusty is over the moon when Tom comes to claim him, though Tom’s life in the north central Montana town of Gros Ventre in Two Medicine County—both are based on real places in the vicinity of Glacier National Park—couldn’t be less like Phoenix. Tom lives in a big house and parks his Packard under an immense tree called Igdrasil—a variant spelling of Yggdrasil, the ash tree at the center of the universe in Norse cosmology—but he spends most of his time at The Medicine Lodge that fronts his home. That’s where Tom tends the bar he owns, and where’s he’s generally acknowledged as the master of his craft. It’s white shirt, bow-tie, and machine-like efficiency for Tom, who takes as much pride in pouring a perfect beer as a maestro in conducting a flawless symphony. If you don’t have cash, the backroom is filled with pawned goods, a veritable museum of wonders for Rusty and his new friend Zoe, whose folks bought the town diner. Zoe's parents are better owners, Tom opines, though the food isn’t any better! But Rusty will eat there a lot, because Tom isn’t exactly the homemaker type.

Tom is equal parts open book and mystery. He’s not well schooled, but he possesses both homespun wisdom and homespun nonsense. He’s careful to say “be-ess” and “son of a bee” around Rusty, though he doesn’t sugarcoat other swears. Tom also has definite ideas about most things, especially fishing, though Rusty can’t get the hang of the latter. Tom isn’t among the town’s elite, but he’s certainly among its most respected citizens, and Rusty gets to see a lot in the bar, as Tom gives him a swamper’s job; that is, he cleans the joint and in those late days of old-style saloons, that includes spittoons. Other than that, Rusty and Zoe are pretty much free to roam and improvise. They even help the elderly Mrs. Reinking—a character from earlier Doig novels—rehearse a play. Insofar as Rusty is concerned, the only thing that distresses him is that his father sometimes collects stuff from the backroom and makes trips—sometimes in bad weather—up to Medicine Hat, Alberta, and is close-lipped about why he does that.

Tom, of course, had a life before Rusty, which reveals itself when one Delano Robertson comes to town and tries to convince Tom to help him with his “Missing Voices” project on the building of the Fort Peck Dam in northeast Montana, where Tom operated his first bar, The Blue Eagle, during the Depression. Tom, Delano knows, was a trusted figure even back then. “Del” wants Tom to jump into his Gab Lab, as his retrofitted van/recording studio is dubbed, and introduce him to key individuals attending a reunion. Tom is reluctant; the place holds some unpleasant memories, not the least of which is a mudslide (historically accurate) that killed 8 workers. The name Delano carries magic for Tom, though. He worshiped Franklin D. Roosevelt and is hopeful John F. Kennedy will get elected in November and become another FDR.

Before this marvelous tale concludes, we’ll also meet Proxy, a former taxi dancer, and her daughter Francine who is 21, has a mysterious background, and is caught somewhere between beatnik and the yet-to-born hippie subcultures. You’ll learn why Tom and Rusty’s mother “split the blanket” (divorced), learn about the New Deal and projects that offered hope during hard times, step inside working-class life in the 1930s and 1960, experience drama, and sort the mud from the sheen of Rusty’s childhood.

Doig was a compelling and vivid writer, though I will warn you that the novel’s pace is deliberate. I found it pitch-prefect for capturing what boils down to small lives caught up in big events against big backdrops. It took me a while to adjust to the pace but once I did, I was delighted to be a regular at the Medicine Lodge. How rare to read a tribute to a common man who glorified his humble craft.    

Rob Weir 


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