The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig

Ivan Doig (Work Song, 2010) has written another powerful depiction of life in Montana. The Bartender’s Tale is set in Gros Ventre (pronounced Grow Vaunt) in 1960, the year Rusty turns twelve, a momentous time in many young lives and particularly for Rusty. It’s the summer he meets his boon companion and survives a tragedy while saving a friend’s life and, most importantly, finds out more about his intriguing but reticent father. He spent the first six years of life in Arizona under the care of his aunt, uncle and their mean, bullying sons who never let Rusty forget his place and that his father was a lowly bartender. Somehow, dad Tom Harry gets wind of the sadness in his son’s life and swoops into town unexpectedly, packing Rusty up and into the car heading north for Montana in a matter of minutes.

Arriving in Gros Ventre, Rusty is amazed and entranced with the venerable Medicine Lodge Saloon his father owns and manages, especially the back room filled with items Tom acquired in lieu of payment for bar bills. Six years later Rusty is coming of age and is incredibly, incorrigibly curious about what goes on in the saloon, as overheard and spied from a ventilation vent in the back room. His new acquaintance, Zoe, is as enthralled as he is with this illicit peek into the adult world and with the flotsam left behind by drinkers, which the two use in creating a world of drama of their own. Add a tall red-haired guy and his “gab lab” out from the Smithsonian to record living history from survivors of a dam failure in the 1930s, who talks Tom Harry into providing introductions to the survivors at a dam reunion, a beautiful young hippie purportedly another offspring of Tom’s, and an unexpected catastrophe, for a richly detailed and compelling story more about Tom and his slowly revealed life than about Rusty, the narrator.

Ivan Doig continues to amaze with an unsentimental, but obviously loving, look back at Montana in various time periods.

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