The Bartender’s Tale
Doig’s latest (after Work Song, 2010) is a compassionate coming-of-age story, in which a few years in a boy’s life, as remembered by the adult he becomes, are described in prose with the clarity of spring water. When Rusty Harry was two months old, his mother disappeared. Out of necessity, his father left the infant with an overworked aunt who already had two boys.
The boy grows up knowing his parents never married, his mother doesn’t want him, and his father, who visits infrequently, doesn’t want him full time. Rusty develops into a sensitive child with the overdeveloped sense of responsibility that comes from trying to stay out of trouble.
“I came to get the kid.” Tom Harry decides a 6-year-old is old enough to live with him and whisks his son away to Montana where he owns a bar. Rusty, who can hardly believe his luck, says that’s when “life stopped being cruddy.”
Rusty loves his father, worries about him, and tries desperately to please him. In spite of Tom’s affectations — the black pompadour and gas-guzzling car — he’s a decent man who does the same. They both suffer from an inability to communicate.
“The year of everything,” 1960, is when an old friend of Tom’s (a taxi dancer) and her teenage daughter turn the Harrys’ life upside down. Now 12, Rusty gets an education, partly by observation, partly by eavesdropping, and he absorbs a lot of misinformation. Is this woman his mother? Does Rusty have a sister? They have to talk. Revelations abound. To say all ends well is an exaggeration but not by much.
The Bartender’s Tale is recommended for readers who enjoy good storytelling at a leisurely pace.