The Bartender's Tale

Ivan Doig

Riverhead Books 

Somewhere in the back of our minds lurked the disturbing knowledge that when school started in the fall, I would have to turn into a boy among other boys again and she would have to find a best friend among girls. But that fact of life lay whole months away yet, and in the meantime, all we had to live up to was for each of us to do half the laughing.

                      from  The Bartender’s Tale


The reasoned, seasoned memories of a boy fifty years later

Soon before daybreak on my sixth birthday, my mother’s breathing wheezed more raggedly than ever, then quieted. And then stopped.

The remembering begins out of that new silence…

One of the most evocative and powerful openings I had ever read began This House of Sky, Ivan Doig’s 1978 memoir of growing up in Montana. I was hooked and eagerly read the books that followed, The Sea Runners, Winter Brothers, Prairie Nocturne, The Whistling Season, Work Song. Like Wallace Stegner, Doig is a storyteller of the modern West and a master stylist, meaning that as important as the story he tells is the way he tells it; his books are full of sentences you want to highlight and underline and remember.

In his most recent novel, The Bartender’s Tale, Doig relates the experiences of Russell (Rusty) Harry when he turned twelve in 1960—“that year of everything”—when his life changed and the world would never be the same again.

The events take place in the small fictional town of Gros Ventre, Montana (“where people knew one another’s business almost before it happened”), the setting of several of Doig’s stories.

Rusty lives with his father, who owns the town’s most popular bar, the Medicine Lodge saloon, and who is some kind of legend in the area with his down to earth, no-nonsense philosophy (“All you can count on in life is your fingers and toes.” “Opposites attract, but usually not for long.”)

“Newly hatched from childhood into adolescence,” Rusty begins to explore the strange goings-on and baffling world of adults. To accompany him on his explorations is a girl new in town, Zoe Constantine. Overcoming the typical 12-year old boy’s suspicion of girls, he and Zoe quickly become best friends and co-conspirators in growing up.

Rather than the story of some dramatic, life changing event, the novel instead recounts the daily little discoveries and mini-dramas that together add up to what Rusty realizes was a turning point in his life: The prospect of his dad re-marrying, or as he called it “maddermoany,” selling the bar that had become a manageable microcosm of the world, or being confronted with the possibility that he has a half-sister neither he nor his father knew about.

Through the story of that momentous year, Doig captures the freshness of a 12-year old’s explorations and discoveries filtered now through the reasoned, seasoned reflections of the boy fifty years later: “That’s grown-ups for you. By the time we ever figure them out…we’ll be them.”

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (September 15-Oct 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.