Tag Archives: Montana

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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Having It All

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy (Riverhead Books, 232 pages, $15.00)

“Meloy’s stories are both bold and quiet.”   Angela Meyer

One can’t / have it / both ways / and both / ways is / the only / way I / want it.   – A. R.  Ammons

Both Ways… is a collection of eleven short stories written by Maile Meloy, the title taken from the one-sentence poem posted above.   Meloy is a writer with a style that’s so cool its chilling; at times she will remind the reader of Joan Didion.   And at least one of the stories here (“Liliana”) reads like something Didion might have written for The Twilight Zone.   In Liliana, a man in Los Angeles hears a knock on his door and opens it to find his grandmother.   Perhaps this does not sound so unusual, except for the fact that his grandmother died two months earlier.

The ten other stories are much more conventional and share a common theme.   These are stories of people who have settled into their lives as they are, but see the chance to escape and live an alternate existence.   These are people who are tempted by other people and other places.   Meloy sets this up so that some of the story subjects elect not to change their lives while others do.   Since each protagonist actually wants to have it both ways – retaining his/her current life while also having it change – not one of them finds true satisfaction…  The exception is the final story, where one man feels both “the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted, all at once.”

This compilation of stories is thus brilliantly structured, placed in a very deliberate order like the songs on a classic record album.   As with a great recording, one is tempted to again listen to the songs (re-read the stories) to find the messages that were not obvious the first time through.   Part of Meloy’s intelligence is displayed by the manner in which she disguises things.   The first few tales are set in the remote state of Montana (far from L.A.) and the reader comes to think that maybe all of them will take place on that stage.   They do not.

Meloy also sets up situations that make you, the reader, think you know exactly what’s coming along before she fools you.   In one story (“Red from Green”), for example, we see that an older man and a young woman both possess – and practice with – loaded guns before he considers making an uninvited move on her.   Someone is going to get shot, right?   Well, no, but you will need to read that story to find out what does occur.

College literature professors are going to have a great time showing their students the hidden meanings and lessons buried in Meloy’s seemingly calm and quiet prose.   But you don’t need to pay tuition to enjoy these tales of yearning, wisdom and acceptance.   For the price of a trade paperback you can slide into a seat in Meloy’s classroom.   Take good notes!

Recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher (Riverhead/Penguin).

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy, author of Liars and Saints.   “Maile Meloy is a true and rare find.”   – Richard Ford

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Double Take

Double Take: A Memoir by Kevin Michael Connolly

“…you are only disabled if you are incapable of overcoming the challenges presented in any given situation.”

Kevin Michael Connolly is an accomplished young American, twenty-three years old.   He was a high school wrestler, a competitive downhill skier in college, and a silver medalist in the X Games broadcast around the world.   He’s traveled to many places around the world.   He’s usually seen moving along on a skateboard.   He’s had his photographs exhibited by the Smithsonian, and has a girlfriend in New Zealand.

Did I happen to mention that he was born without legs?   No.   Maybe that’s because Connolly does not view himself as disabled.  

Reading this memoir reminds the reader that perspective is everything.   Not only is it entertaining, but there are several points where you’ll find yourself laughing out loud.   Connolly does not take pity on himself; instead he focuses on the fact that he’s already had a great life and he’s well-known.   Maybe if Connolly had been born with legs he’d have been an average Kevin who never left Montana.

This is a memoir unusually illustrated with some of Connolly’s photos of shocked people staring at him.   It is an inspiring read about a human being who doesn’t concern himself with what he has lost or never had.   He’s a lucky man, sharing his bounty with us.

Harper Studio, $19.99, 227 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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