The Bartender’s Tale
Riverhead Books, Penguin
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". . . a coming-of-age tale . . ."
Prolific writer Ivan Doig’s new novel, “The Bartender’s Tale,” is a coming-of-age tale narrated by Rusty, abandoned by his mother and left with relatives until he was six years old when his bar-tending father, Tom Harry, rescues him and takes him to Gros Ventre, Montana.
The story advances to the summer of 1960 when Rusty, now 12, and friend Zoe spend considerable time listening through an air vent to the goings-on in the Medicine Lodge bar below. Unfortunately Doig lingers too long on Rusty’s and Zoe’s summer exploits before arriving at the pivotal point of the story when young Delano Robertson, an oral historian, arrives at their door.
Robertson is working on a “Missing Voices” project for the Library of Congress and needs Tom’s help to gain access to folks from Fort Peck, where the largest dam in the world was built, “a New Deal effort during the Depression.” During this time Tom ran the most popular bar in town, the Blue Eagle Saloon where many a Blues singer first performed.
Initially Tom is not convinced of the importance of saving the language of ordinary people, or lingua America, as Robertson described it. “You want me to get Fort Peckers to spill their guts for you,” Tom tells him. “What kind of an ess of a bee do you think I am?”
Ultimately Tom gives in and they go to the “Mudjacks” reunion where Tom’s and Rusty’s life is flung off course by the arrival of Tom’s old barroom dancer, Proxy and her daughter Francine.
The material is original and there is no doubting Doig’s ability to capture the conversational dialogue of the period. But I found the repetitiveness of the exchanges an impairment to the pace of the story and its overall message.
Reviewer: Kate Padilla