In Ivan Doig’s The Bartenders’s Tale, Rusty’s young life took a turn for the better when he was six years old. He was the result of an accident between the sheets and was being raised by his Aunt Marge and tortured by his older cousins. At six, his father rescued him and took him back to Gros Ventre, Montana to live with him. Tom Harry, his father is the World’s Best Bartender, a listener who soaks up the stories and troubles of his customers as he polishes the bar with his white towel. He is no talker, he’s a listener, and he tells no tales.
His father teaches him to fish, lets him play in the back room of the bar which filled to the rafters with gear, tack and fascinating bits and pieces of the West that customers short of money have exchanged for their beer. His dad occasionally heads off to Canada to sell off some of the stuff for some extra money, something that always leaves Rusty fraught with fears of loss and abandonment. Those six years with Aunt Marge loom large in part because his father is unaware of his fears and not being a demonstrative or talkative man, is unable to provide the reassurance he needs.
Things change during the summer of Rusty’s twelfth year. He gets to work one day a week cleaning the bar, being in the front with his dad. He meets a new friend, Zoe, with whom he becomes inseparable. Del, a collector of stories and dialects comes to town to encourage Tom to go to a reunion bringing together the folks who worked on the Fort Peck Dam and Proxy, a long-lost associate of Tom’s delivers his 21 year old daughter to his door, a daughter he never knew existed so she can learn the bartending trade.
So much is happening and it’s all so exciting and Rusty can hardly understand it all – and while he needs so many answers from his father, he instead spends hours analyzing and assessing everything with his best friend Zoe. It’s a lovely story of childhood that rings true. Rusty is a great kid, kind, generous and perceptive, but he’s still a kid and gets things wrong. He really needs answers from his dad and eventually he does. His dad does have a story to tell him and when he finally tells him, Rusty is freed from doubt. But it’s a fun and heartwarming story getting there.
Ivan Doig has been one of my favorite writers ever since I sat down one afternoon, picked up The Sea Runners and forgot the rest of the world existed until then end of that most incredible voyage. I have read his fiction and nonfiction writing and loved it all. I was heartbroken when he died last year. The Bartender’s Tale is no exception. It is a wonderful and lovely novel that I enjoyed a lot. It takes us back to familiar places that have been the home of several of his novels.
The Bartender’s Tale is not as sharp as some of his other novels. Centered on the 12 year old worldview, it is more innocent and naive even when there are goings-on “between the sheets.” Some of the characters seem more two-dimensional that I expect to find in a Doig novel. However, the central father-son relationship seems so honest and true that everything else becomes minor quibbles. And again, as in everything Doig has ever written, the setting is a character in the novel as potent and present as any person. Wallace Stegner, the great writer of the West, once said that the literature of the West was all about hope. Doig was in that same tradition and The Bartender’s Tale is a true tale of the West.