I read this novel for my book club and was grateful to have discovered the Montana author, Ivan Doig, who unfortunately died in 2015. The Bartender’s Tale is a slow and pleasant read. It has the pace of a nice morning walk through a small rural Montana community where everyone knows your business.
The book takes place in 1960 and begins with Tom Harry, the owner of a well-worn bar called The Medicine Lodge as he drives to his sister’s home in Arizona to reclaim his 12-year-old son Rusty. The atypical single father and son forge a new life together based largely in and around the bar. At The Medicine Lodge, life-long lessons in treating people right are more than just good business practice. Tom is something of a local ombudsman in every way but by election.
Rusty knows that his mother and father split the blanket shortly after he was born but nothing much beyond that. Rusty befriends Zoe, the daughter of the couple who own The Spot – an average eatery down the street – who is also new to town. Their jokes, laughs, and shtick are typical of kids coming of age. Their favorite thing to do is to listen to conversations through the vent in the back room of the bar; an activity that provides a curriculum of adult vocabulary and sex education.
When Del Robertson shows up with a grant-funded project through the Library of Congress to record people’s stories, there is a shift of focus for Tom and Rusty. They assist Del in helping persuade often-unwilling volunteers agree to participate. Then, another disruption named Proxy (a nickname for her hair color) arrives in a red Cadillac with her moody 21-year-old daughter in tow. Proxy has a past with Tom, from another bar named The Blue Eagle, and everyone seems to know that these still waters run deep.
This was a book I was sad to finish. Despite Doig’s death, I’m grateful to know that he completed 12 books in this series. Even though this book is 10th in the series, this book worked quite well on its own.
Doig, Ivan. The Bartender’s Tale. Riverhead Books, 2012