Those Were the Days

The Bartender’s Tale: A Novel by Ivan Doig (Riverhead Books, $27.95, 387 pages)

“To me now, that culminating day of the summer – of the year, really – seems like one long, twisty dream, everything that began with Proxy’s Cadillac nosing into the driveway and the thunderous disclosures that followed, and then the tremendous gathering at the (fishing) derby, as if the audience would come to see what Tom Harry would bring about next.”

Ivan Doig, author of the bestseller Work Song and 8 other prior novels plus 3 nonfiction works, has fashioned a family novel that at first glance appears to be a very slight story.   It’s the tale of Tom Harry, a single-parent bartender in an isolated town in northern Montana.   The story we read is told by his son Rusty, and it’s a look back in time – the summer of 1960 – when the now-adult son was twelve and his father was still alive.

As told, Rusty meets a young playmate named Zoe who will turn out to be the love of his life and his future wife.   The story that the reader presumes will play out – that Tom Harry dies and Rusty takes over his role as the town’s most skilled bartender – is  not the one that Doig delivers.   (It is also not the story of Rusty and Zoe’s adult romance.)   Instead, it’s about how Tom Harry masterfully handles the stresses in his life, most notably when a former female co-worker shows up in town to present him with a twenty-one year old daughter he never knew existed.   It’s the suddenly on-the-scene daughter Francine who eventually becomes the possible replacement for Tom behind the bar.

If the plotline seems minor, Doig makes up for it because he has a marvelous voice for describing life’s everyday happenings:

“Tomorrow came all too soon.   Pop must have believed fish got up before dawn.   Cats were just scooting home from their nightly prowls, eyes glittering at us in the Hudson’s headlights, as he drove out of town and into a gravel road that seemed to go on and on.   I was more asleep than awake when he stopped the car.”

This is a story about a young man who comes to idolize his “Pop”, and discovers that he’s just a man with a few very human flaws (lust, dishonesty, and others) – and yet also a human being admired as a leader who never departs from his key values in life.   He’s a man who can and will do anything necessary to provide for his son.   The novel ends with a conclusion that Rusty could not see was coming, one which should surprise almost all readers.   It’s about love and life’s tough lessons and once you’ve finished reading The Bartender’s Tale, you will no doubt feel like you’ve left the company of some very decent, struggling yet valiant people who will be missed.

Doig is a unique writer who takes what’s seemingly too small in life to matter, fills the entire stage with it, and makes us care deeply about outcomes.   It’s a very special gift.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

 “(An) enjoyable, old-fashioned, warmhearted story  about fathers and sons, growing up, and big life changes.”   Library Journal

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