One of Montana’s favorite native sons, Ivan Doig, visits Helena for a book signing for his latest novel, “The Bartender’s Tale,” at Montana Book & Toy Co., noon to 1:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 8.
“The Bartender’s Tale,” has quickly earned accolades from reviewers in publications across the country — among them, the Washington Post, USA Today and Publishers Weekly.
The story focuses on Tom Harry, the proprietor of the famous, mythical Medicine Lodge saloon, “a nearly holy oasis.”
Harry, who has a streak of frost in his black pompadour, is raising his young son, Rusty, “an accident between the sheets,” whose mother deserted them both years ago.
On the cusp of the 1960s, they’ve settled into a comfortable life together in the small northern Montana town of Gros Ventre.
Dramatic change swirls onto the scene with the arrival of Proxy, a taxi dancer, who Tom knew from his earlier fabled saloon in Fort Peck.
She’s accompanied by her beatnik daughter, Francine, who Proxy hints is the legacy of Tom and her past.
Doig fans will recognize bartender Tom Harry, who had a cameo role in the novel “English Creek” and a more prominent one in “Bucking the Sun.”
“I liked this character,” said Doig in a phone interview from his home in Seattle. So he decided to give him a bigger role and pose the sort of question writers tend to do: “What if I gave him a kid to raise?”
What unfolds in the Medicine Lodge saloon and before the eyes of the “kid,” Russell “Rusty” Harry, are some of the characters and scenes Doig witnessed as a child, accompanying his own father into saloons.
“It’s my most autobiographical novel to date,” said Doig.
Like Tom Harry, Doig’s father, Charlie, was often raising his young son on his own after Ivan’s mother died from asthma.
Charlie was a freelance hay contractor foreman up and down the Smith Valley, said Doig. He would hire his own crew to put up ranchers’ hay crops. “The hiring halls of the day were saloons, and I was lucky enough to tag along.”
With an Orange Crush pop in hand, and the juke box for company, Doig would watch his father appraise the array of characters in the bars of White Sulphur Springs.
“I saw a lot of character on display,” Doig writes on his website, “in the ranch hands and sheepherders and saloonkeepers of half a century ago. Surely it was at life’s prompting, back then, that I developed an abiding interest in that trait, character, and its even more seductive flowering into a plural form, characters.”
At first, Doig thought that ranching, not writing, was his calling.
Born in White Sulphur Springs in 1939, Doig attended school there until the beginning of his freshman year of high school, when his father contracted for a ranch in Dupuyer along the Rocky Mountain Front.
“We were running sheep on shares and were to be there nine months out of the year, and would then run them on the Blackfeet Reservation in summer,” he recalled. “We came out to this ranch at night and it was the worst ranch we had ever seen.”
Set down in a valley, everything was at a slope. The ranch house’s front rooms were cluttered with storage, and Doig’s family was scrunched into a few rooms. “We had only the kitchen and back bedrooms.”
But it was in Dupuyer that Doig’s life took a major turn toward a career as a journalist and novelist.
His grandmother, Bessie Ringer, who stepped in to help raise Doig, asked the owner of the Home Café, Gertie Chadwick, if Doig could board with her in winter months, so he could attend school once snow was flying.
That café became his second home and would later appear as the Top Spot Cafe in several of Doig’s 11 novels.
Sitting on a cafe stool, Doig once again had a perfect perch for observing the fascinating local characters who would come to people his Two Medicine country novels.
Doig said he was all set to follow in his father’s footsteps ranching until a July storm hit during the summer of his junior year in high school, causing them to lose a large part of their band of freshly sheared sheep. This was the third year in a row that weather had played tricks on them.
“When I went back to school, I dropped out of FFA (Future Farmers of America) and shop and began typing and Latin with Frances Tidyman.”
Tidyman was a whirlwind of energy, who encouraged Doig to work on the school paper and yearbook and be in school plays.
“She truly was a powerful influence on my life,” he said.
In his senior year, Doig won a full scholarship to journalism school at Northwestern University. He earned both a B.A. and master’s degree there, and worked as a journalist before pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Washington. Doig became a full-time writer in 1969.
He comes by his gift for storytelling naturally.
“My dad was a good storyteller,” he said. Although Charlie was born in the United States, he had a lowlands Scotch burr he picked up from his relatives in Sixteen Mile Creek Canyon.
His grandmother, who had only a third grade education, could read and write and had taught herself the piano, said Doig. “Her knowledge was in the form of proverbs and sayings.”
“Poor people are rich in language,” he added, and it was her poetic, colorful sayings that often come from the mouths of characters in his books,
Doig’s been hailed as the successor to famous Western writer Wallace Stegner. “I’m deeply honored ... by the comparison,” Doig said. And despite rumors on the Internet, Doig never studied with Stegner, but met him several times at book events.
As to Doig’s latest projects, he’s just completed a sequel to “Work Song,” which he is readying to send to his publisher.
If you go ...
What: Author Ivan Doig will be signing copies of his new novel, “The Bartender’s Tale,”
When: Noon to 1:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 8
Where: Montana Book & Toy Co.,
331 N. Last Chance Gulch, Helena