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2013-03-17 Steve Gardiner Book Review: The Bartender\'s Tale

Over 20 years ago, I listened to Ivan Doig read from his memoir Heart Earth to a small audience in the log cabin community library in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In the time since, I've read at least six of his books and his voice has bounced around inside my mind as I turned the pages of each one.

Although Doig has lived in Seattle for many years, he grew up in Montana and has never been able to get that out of his system. I'm glad. His creation of the Two Medicine country from his early years lives on in several of his books including his latest, The Bartender's Tale. That wonderful setting filled with the very real characters Doig is able to put on the page makes his books an open door into a place and time that capture me from the opening pages.


Most of the book takes place during the summer of 1960 when the adult narrator Rusty was 12 years old. The book opens with Rusty proudly stating, “My father was the best bartender who ever lived.” His fathering skills may have been less developed. As Rusty noted, “My mother, who was my father's housekeeper when domestic matters underwent a surprising turn and I was the result, long since had washed her hands of the two of us and vanished from our part of Montana, and for all I could find out, from the face of the earth.” With that, Rusty's father Tom shipped him to Phoenix to live with his Aunt Marge and cousins Danny and Ronny. The cousins, both older than Rusty, made sport of tormenting Rusty constantly, turning his life into a nightmare which he “survived, as children somehow do.”


Then one day when he was six, Rusty was saved when Tom showed up at the door, slipped several dollars into Aunt Marge's hands, and loaded Rusty into the truck and drove him to Gros Ventre, Montana, where Tom was the owner and bartender at the Medicine Lodge, the town's favorite bar or “joint” as Tom preferred to call it. It took some time for the two to reacquaint and get used to being around each other, but Rusty was relieved to be away from Danny and Ronny.


Like many Doig novels, The Bartender's Tale takes a look at how the narrator reflects on coming-of-age. For Rusty, his glimpse into the adult world came through a vent between the barroom and the backroom. Not allowed in the bar, Rusty spent his hours in the backroom entertaining himself by sorting through the museum of goods there. As Tom put it, “customers don't always have the ready cash when they want a couple of drinks,” so in exchange for drinks, Tom had taken in saddles, boots, fishing poles, bridles, harnesses, and just about anything else that could be hauled into the bar and traded. When the piles got large enough, he would load up the truck and disappear for two or three days, returning with empty truck and a pocket full of cash.


When a reporter writes an article about Tom being the classic bartender, the story changes and people show up at the Medicine Lodge with awards, purchase offers, and a variety of other interesting situations. Throughout, Doig manages to keep his characters interesting and moving toward an ending that gives readers one more view of what growing up in Montana was like in an earlier day. Doig's voice, as it did in the log cabin library in Jackson, resonates and provides us with yet another good read.


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