In a culture obsessed with texting but careless about text, where a winner of the Pulitzer Prize tweets a story for the New Yorker 140 characters at a time, what are we to make of this slow-paced new novel from 73-year-old Ivan Doig? The Bartender’s Tale works slowly, building up observations such as this one: “People come and go in our lives; that’s as old a story as there is. But some of them the heart cries out to keep forever, and that is a fresh saga every time.” That adds up to 158 characters right there — one an economical, old-fashioned semicolon — and I don’t know how a person could whittle away 18 of them without losing something essential.
In a market where E L James’ trilogy of suburban S&M accounts for the sale of one in five volumes of adult fiction, Doig dares to offer us no sadomasochistic sex whatsoever (and precious little of any other kind). His narrative is told through the eyes of a child: 12-year-old Rusty Harry, now grown to adulthood and casting his mind back to the transformational summer of 1960.
The adult world is opening up to Rusty. He’s trying to uncover and parse the secrets of his father, the eponymous bartender Tom Harry. He’s working to understand the ways of the grown-ups who frequent his old man’s legendary Montana saloon, the Medicine Lodge; and he’s struggling to come to terms with the strange feeling that overwhelms him in the presence of the new girl in town, a witty and willful child just his age.
The Bartender’s Tale offers the canny charm of Tony Earley’s classic Jim the Boy, without that novel’s storybook simplicity of language. This is the one place where Doig’s book falters. The adult narrator describes a 1960 where everyone talks the same — in fact, where everyone talks the way he narrates — and where ordinary conversation often sounds like a wisecracking cross between Philip Marlowe and Andy Hardy. Sometimes the conceit works, as when Tom replies to his son’s wish that he didn’t smoke so much: “ ‘That’s funny, I wish that sometimes, too,’ he said, taking a deep drag. ‘Usually between cigarettes.’ ” Sometimes, it doesn’t. These characters never say “divorce” when they can say “splitting the blanket.” A recording studio set up to document oral history is forever “the Gab Lab.” And anything exceptionally cool is always and aggravatingly “swuft.”
These habits can wear thin. But the rewards of the book — a subtle and engaging narrative, characters who behave the way real people behave, the joys of careful and loving observation — remain great and extremely rare. We live in a marketplace where the loudest and the lowest generally triumph, and Doig’s new book is neither. Be glad there’s still room for it, at least for now.
Jon Clinch reviewed this book for The Washington Post.