His father’s past both unsettles and entices Rusty Harry in Doig’s latest loving portrait of Montana and its crusty inhabitants (Work Song, 2010, etc.).
Some of Doig’s best work (English Creek, 1984; The Whistling Season, 2006) has been narrated by young adolescents; the inquisitive perspective of boys puzzling out adult ways seems to suit an author with a sharp eye for the revealing particulars of everyday human behavior. Twelve-year-old Rusty is no exception, and the air vent in the back room of his father Tom’s saloon, the Medicine Lodge, gives him an earful of grown-up goings-on in the town of Gros Ventre. But it’s outsiders who really stir things up in the summer of 1960. First to arrive is Zoe, daughter of the local restaurant’s new owners, who quickly becomes Rusty’s best friend and, after they see a vividly described outdoor production of As You Like It, his fellow aspiring thespian. Next is Delano Robertson, an oral historian who wants Tom to help him gather reminiscences at the forthcoming reunion of workers from the New Deal’s Fort Peck dam project—a period in his past the bartender does not seem anxious to recollect. We learn why (readers of Bucking the Sun, 1996, will already have guessed) at the reunion, where Tom is stunned by the appearance of Proxy, a taxi dancer at the wide-open bar he ran back then, who announces the existence of a daughter from their one-time fling. Disheveled Francine needs a refuge and a profession, so Tom agrees to let her learn his trade at the Medicine Lodge, while Rusty anxiously wonders if Proxy might be his long-gone mother. 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.