Monday, November 4, 2013

The Bartender’s Tale

Ivan Doig.  Riverhead Books: 2012: $16.

I’d given up on fiction about a year ago.  Too much of what I’d been reading left me empty as if I’d just watched back-to-back-to-back hours of 80s era cop shows on TV, and rose from the couch feeling as if I’d wasted a perfectly good evening.  Prior to going cold turkey, I’d been caught up in either glitzy assembly-line novels where understory folks write for the James Pattersons and Clive Custlers of the world, or formulaic stuff that, into the third or fourth installment, I realized I’d read before.

Enter Ivan Doig.  I’d never read any of his work previously, but in July, a friend had mentioned this one.  Timid about getting burned for sixteen bucks and several hours of time, I didn’t bite.  Then, a week or so ago, “The Bartenders Tale” was displayed prominently on the “New in Paperback” table of the independent in Calistoga. “Well, what the hell,” I must have said aloud, because an older woman raised an eyebrow from behind the cash register.

Set in Montana in 1960, Doig’s novel lets me reenter that time through the eyes of narrator Rusty, a kid who was about my age in that year.  Within pages, I am sharing the curiosity, wonder, questions and angst of one exploring a barroom’s backroom stuffed with pawned treasures, experiencing our childhoods fade into the rearview mirror and the future unfold one overheard conversation at a time.  I laugh with the Twain-like oddities and incidents Doig creates and shudder at the truths – some real, some imagined – as divined by Rusty.  We’ve all been there.

In this story steeped in nostalgia and wisdom, Rusty, in need of his own place-in-the-world foundation, struggles to grasp his single-father’s past.  Immersed in the story, I am twelve again, right there with him and I don’t want twelve to end.  When it does, I find I must take ten minutes and a walk around the block to allow the mist to clear from my eyes.

Mr. Doig has renewed my interest in fiction as, perhaps, a most-viable vehicle for delivering truth.  Now I want more.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

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