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Originally published August 26, 2012 at 5:00 AM | Page modified August 26, 2012 at 4:33 PM

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Ivan Doig's story of a bright boy, a Montana bar and a buried past

Seattle author Ivan Doig's new novel, "The Bartender's Tale," is the coming-of-age story of a bright 12-year-old boy, raised by his bachelor father in a small Montana town. Their uncomplicated existence is upended when a woman and her daughter invade their lives. Doig makes several appearances in the Seattle area in August and September.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Ivan Doig

The author of "The Bartender's Tale" will be at these Seattle-area locations:

• 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, Eagle Harbor Book Co., Bainbridge Island (206-842-5332 or

• 7 p.m. Sept. 6, Parkplace Books, Kirkland (425-828-6546 or

• 7 p.m. Sept. 10, Seattle Public Library's downtown Branch, co-presented by Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-386-4636 or

• 7 p.m. Sept. 20, Seattle's University Book Store (206-634-3400 or

• 7 p.m. Sept. 28, Village Books in Bellingham (360-671-2626 or

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'The Bartender's Tale'

by Ivan Doig

Riverhead, 400 pp., $27.95

With the successful theatrical run of Ivan Doig's 2003 novel "Prairie Nocturne" at Book-It Repertory Theater earlier this year, it's no surprise that the narrator of Doig's new novel is someone who has spent his life in the theater.

But it is 1960 in rural Montana, and that theatrical future is just an awakening dream for Rusty Harry, the bright 12-year-old narrator of Doig's 11th novel, "The Bartender's Tale."

Rusty is being raised by his bachelor father, Tom, legendary bartender of the historic Medicine Lodge, a turn-of-the-century saloon in the small sheep ranching community of Gros Ventre. Tom is doing his best at running a popular "joint" as he calls it, juggling bills and single-handedly tending to his inquisitive and impressionable son.

Rusty's mother abandoned the family soon after the boy was born, and Rusty's questions of who she was and why she left are never quite answered, not until the eventful summer described in the novel brings unexpected arrivals and troubling revelations that threaten to topple Rusty's precariously balanced world.

Doig is at his best with coming-of-age stories. And he is masterful at exploring the emotional complexities of family and community through the eyes of a precocious youth. His own Montana boyhood and hardscrabble upbringing with a widowed father are beautifully told in his classic memoir "This House of Sky." The young Doig frequently accompanied his ranch-hand father to saloons that served as hiring halls — and no doubt sharpened his interest in character and dialogue along the way.

Doig used youthful narrators to great success in his popular Montana novels "English Creek" and "The Whistling Season." In "The Bartender's Tale" he also reaches back to another earlier novel, "Bucking the Sun," to retrieve two characters who share a tangled past.

Rusty's father, Tom, ran the popular Blue Eagle Tavern at the 1930s construction site of the Fort Peck Dam in that novel, and a mischievous beauty called Proxy worked the construction crews there as a taxi dancer.

Now it's 25 years later and Proxy sweeps back into Tom's (and Rusty's) life with a wayward 21-year-old daughter in tow and an audacious scheme that will set Tom and Rusty's small predictable world in Gros Ventre completely on its end.

Proxy's most recent employment was as a stand-in for Marilyn Monroe during the Nevada filming of "The Misfits." Her daughter Francine looked, in Rusty's eyes, "a lot like the movie actress Natalie Wood, but after a hard night." There are hard days as well as nights in store for this unlikely foursome. A skewed business deal, small lies grown large, betrayed trust and a dam-burst flood that nearly washes the small town off the Montana map.

Late in the novel, Rusty sees his father in a new light.

"Watching the figure who fathered me, now with gray at his temples and a certain stiffness in his casting arm, I no longer cared about his quirks and questionable habits, about whatever happened ... out of the range of my knowing."

Forever the master storyteller, Doig has fashioned a moving tale of tolerance, self-discovery and forgiveness in which a child comes to terms with his own origins and in the process opens a new door to his future.

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