Review: Doig spins a masterful 'Bartender's Tale'

"The Bartender's Tale" (Riverhead Books), by Ivan Doig

Looking for a good story? A well-written and engrossing tale that leaves you feeling satisfied? Give Ivan Doig's latest novel a chance.

Set in Doig's beloved Montana mostly in the summer of 1960, "The Bartender's Tale" is as plain as the title. It's a slice of one family's life as remembered by the narrator when he was 12 years old.

With typical preteen flourish, narrator Rusty opens the story: "My father was the best bartender who ever lived." You're hooked from that opening sentence, as Rusty is picked up at his aunt's house in Phoenix by his "pops," Tom Harry, and driven to Gros Ventre, Mont. "Good-bye, saguaros (a type of cactus), hello sagebrush," narrates Rusty.

Father and son fend for themselves for years, with Tom twirling towels and polishing his oak bar and Rusty holed up in a backroom filled with treasures pawned by patrons who couldn't pay their tab. He discovers a slotted vent that lets in the sights and sounds from the bar and sits beside it for hours, eavesdropping on the adult conversations and stories pouring out of thirsty customers.

The story is too good and rich to spoil here. There's a girl, of course, and it's through her and Rusty's eyes that the remarkable events of the summer of 1960 unfold. There's a mystery woman for Tom, too, who shows up with a daughter he never knew he had. And then there's a fresh-out-of-college boy named Delano, on the road for the Library of Congress to create an oral history of the West.

Doig is a master at weaving all the characters together and never losing the audience. It's not a page turner you feel driven to finish in a few sittings, but it's the perfect book for your bedside table. Pick it up, lose yourself in the past and remember what it was like to be 12 years old, when your world and all the people who entered into it felt as fresh as the Montana mountain air.



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