The Bartender’s Tale

By Ivan Doig

(Riverhead, $27.95, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

Though he lives in Seattle now, Ivan Doig was born in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, into a  family of homesteaders and ranch hands that has lived in that state for three generations, and Montana’s craggy beauty informs his beautiful prose. He has written 14 books, including the memoir “House of Sky,” has won the Wallace Stegner Award and has been a finalist for a National Book Award. Now in his 70s, he is still writing and is considered by many critics to be “the dean” of Western literature.

What is this book about?

Today is Thanksgiving, a time for giving thought to all that we have to be grateful for, and also, for many people, it’s a time for wondering if any other families are nearly as odd as their own.

One such unusual family is the subject of “The Bartender’s Tale.”  Tom, a crusty bartender who owns The Medicine Hole, a scruffy bar–and-pawn shop in northern Montana, has a 12-year-old son, Rusty, conceived accidently with a woman who is long gone. Dad and son get by and get along well, and Rusty’s got a budding relationship with a new girl in town, Zoe. Then out of Tom’s past comes another former partner, Proxy, a taxi dancer with a wild daughter, Francine, who may be another of Tom’s love children. Rusty has to cope with these bewildering adults and a past that has invaded his present and may change his future, in this story of how complex life becomes when you pass from the simplicities of childhood to the uncertainties of adulthood.

Why you’ll like it:

Writing about another of Doig’s novels, O, The Oprah Magazine, said: “Doig is in the best sense an old-fashioned novelist: You feel as if you’re in the hands of an absolute expert at story-making, a hard-hewn frontier version of Walter Scott or early Dickens.” That analysis could also easily describe “The Bartender’s Tale,” in which Doig crafts a wonderful family story that is heartfelt but not sentimental. Few things are nicer on a long winter’s day than curling up with a well-written book that warms your heart. “The Bartender’s Tale” may be just that book.

What others are saying:

“Doig cranks into motion a dense valentine of a novel about a father and a small town at the start of the 1960s…Doig writes the tenderness between Rusty and his father vividly, and his facility with natural, vernacular dialogue is often hypnotizing….”The Bartender’s Tale” is thoroughly engaging, and the book’s soft focus of nostalgia is in itself a kind of pleasure,” says NPR.

“With this expert novel, [Doig] sets himself a larger canvas and fills it with a diverse cast… Fact and fiction are skillfully fused to document a boy’s last days of youth and a history his father can’t leave behind…Rusty’s youthful adventures are enchanting, but Doig does something more — he punctuates them with the colorful local idiom of his father’s grizzled punters,”  says Newsweek/Daily Beast.

 “The year is 1960, and the protagonist at the center of this “bartender’s tale” is Tom Harry, a beloved, no-nonsense bartender in Gros Ventre, MT, a sleepy town in remote northern sheep country. Tom is also a single father working long hours, trying to raise his 12-year-old son, Rusty, in this enjoyable, old-fashioned, warmhearted story about fathers and sons, growing up, and big life changes. Rusty is the narrator of the novel, and Doig … brings the young man’s voice and perspective skillfully to life here. Rusty is puzzled by most of what he sees in the adult world, and there is little he can be sure of, except the love of his father. Doig poignantly captures the charm and pathos of Rusty’s efforts to understand this complicated and often baffling adult world. Doig is famous for celebrating the American West, and he also beautifully captures the cadences and details of daily life in this Montana town. VERDICT Recommended for fans of generous, feel-good novels,” says Patrick Sullivan of Manchester Community College for Library Journal.

“His father’s past both unsettles and entices Rusty Harry in Doig’s latest loving portrait of Montana and its crusty inhabitants… Doig expertly spins out these various narrative threads with his usual gift for bringing history alive in the odysseys of marvelously thorny characters. Possibly the best novel yet by one of America’s premier storytellers, says Kirkus Reviews.

  “…the rewards of The Bartender’s Tale — a subtle and engaging narrative, characters who behave the way real people behave, the joys of careful and loving observation — remain very 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,” writes novelist Jon Clinch in The Washington Post.

When is it available?

Look for this one at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Camp Field branch.

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