Fiction From the 'Big Sky' Country
TOWARD the end of "Ride with Me, Mariah Montana," the third in Ivan Doig's 100-year trilogy about the McCaskill family, there's a 30-second scene in which a character jumps out of a Winnebago fueling up at a gas station, runs over to the sign for "Air & Water," and grease-pencils the other two ancient Greek elements "Earth & Fire." It's a wonderful bit of whimsy, an example of what novelist Doig calls the "crocodile factor" designed to "come right up off the page and get you." And it's just one of the th ings that makes him one of the most readable and productive authors from that vast expanse of real estate west of the 100th meridian today generating some of the very best American writers.
To read Doig's fiction, to hear him speak wisdom and wit to a gathering of historians in Sparks, Nevada, and to discuss his craft over a meal or two, is to learn of a man with a passion for language, for the minutiae of life and historical accuracy, and especially for "the lingo" of his characters the tongues that express their lives."
Doig's career as a writer took off a dozen years ago with "This House of Sky," reminiscences about his early life in Montana. Since then he has produced five more highly acclaimed books, including the Two Medicine trilogy (named for the river near where much of it takes place).
On Ivan Doig's sixth birthday, when he was living with his parents in a sheep-herding camp on the front range of the Rocky Mountains (where his grandfather had come from Scotland), his father woke him to say the boy's mother had died that night. For the next few years, father and son bounced around western towns and ranches before settling down with Doig's maternal grandmother as homemaker.
By the time he was 16 and spending most of his summers on the back of a horse tending sheep in the high country, Doig knew he wanted to be a writer and that he had to get out of Montana - beautiful as it was - to succeed. He won a full scholarship to Northwestern University, worked on a newspaper in downstate Illinois, then did magazine editing back in Chicago, where he also picked up a master's degree before heading back out West. At the University of Washington in Seattle, he earned a PhD in history (h e says graduate school cured him of any desire to teach) then spent an enjoyable but lean decade as a free-lance magazine writer while his wife Carol earned most of the family income teaching at a community college.
Like the fictional character who completed the gas-station list of elements in "Mariah Montana," Doig found journalistic writing too limiting. But his training as a historian and newspaperman left him with the strong need to fill his fiction with accurate details from real life, including the spoken word - the earth of daily human affairs and the fire of speech.
In researching the 1889 trans-Atlantic trip of 19-year-olds Angus McCaskill and Rob Barclay for "Dancing at the Rascal Fair" (the first book, chronologically, in the trilogy), Ivan and Carol went to Glasgow (to the very pier from which his grandfather, Peter Doig, had departed), pored over emigrant letters at the University of St. Andrews, and looked up steamship blueprints and investigative reports on the conditions poor travelers endured in steerage.
Later, he dug back into Depression-era Works Progress Administration writers' files in Montana to learn how Anaconda Copper smeltermen, cattle ranchers, and sheep ranchers talked in the early part of the century. The sound of the spoken word is very important to him the shimmer behind the plot" feeding the "delicious hunger of the ear." He was careful to have the two Scotsmen gradually lose their burr over the 30 years of "Rascal Fair."
When he wanted to include scenes about fighting fires, he had four forest rangers check his manuscript for details. He photocopied old Forest Service cookbooks so he would know what it was like to cook for 75 men in the woods.
m always looking for details," he says. "The details are what the skeins of life germinate out of." He loves to repeat Vladimir Nabokov's instruction to students at Cornell University that they must write "with the passion of the scientist and the precision of the artist."
In a spare bedroom office he shares with his wife at home in the north end of Seattle, Doig works away at an old gray Royal typewriter. The remembrance of Scottish ancestors are in his sandy hair and beard. Just back from 50 book readings and signings in San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Chicago, and Minnesota, he relaxes in jeans, a red-striped shirt, and Birkenstocks.
Shelved around him are his favorite writers, including Wallace Stegner, Nadine Gordimer, John Steinbeck, Isak Dinesen, Edward Hoagland, Robinson Jeffers, Loren Eisley, Beryl Markham, Eudora Welty, Frank O'Connor, Joseph Conrad, Barbara Tuchman, Gretel Ehrlich, and William Faulkner. Contemporary western historians Patricia Nelson Limerick and Donald Worster are there. And also "The Songwriter's Rhyming Dictionary," by Sammy Kahn.
"I like people who dance on the page," he says, leaning back in his chair. "Anybody hip-deep in love with the language." One of his characters in "Mariah Montana" says, "Language is the light that comes out of us."
But "with nine-tenths of the ink of this century now expended," he told the western historians in Nevada, "modern American fiction in terms of originality and staying power still adds up to 'Faulkner and the rest of us.
On another shelf, just next to where he writes, are his notebooks: "Comparison and Description,Ideas," "Lingo,Anecdotes,Phrasing," and "Technique." Bits and pieces waiting to be worked into future projects.
His next book, which will focus on his mother (based on letters to an uncle during World War II, interviews with family members, and his dim recollections as a small boy), will feature "deliberate dreams."
"It's the only way I can think of to get at what might have gone on beyond what I can hear and see," he explains. When it comes right down to it, he admits, "a lot of style and technique is best guess." Then, too, "the alchemy of language carries with it the high probability of fizzle."
Of the growing recognition of contemporary literature coming out of the American West, he says: "I think there are enough classy writers west of St. Paul that scholars will eventually have to write about them as a group as they did about the Southern fugitives."
The thing that connects many of these writers, he acknowledges, is love of the spectacular landscape.
"But I don't agree that that's our strongest muscle," he says. "The language, the style, the craft is of such a skill that I don't see why this kind of travelogue tag is at all justified. I mean, Louise Erdrich is a world-class writer - the equivalent of Robert Penn Warren. Jim Welch in "Fools Crow" has produced a truly great book. Bill Kittredge has been a unique writer. I mean, this is increasingly fine stuff, and even if it appeared on a barren planet it would be unique writing."
Yet Doig and many of his contemporaries do connect with the land and worry about what's become of it over the past century or so.
"It is saddening that a lot of what we tried in the West - with reasonably good intentions - has not worked out," he says. "Plowing up the prairies was not a good idea. Pulling up the ore and running it poisonously through smelter stacks turns out not to have been a good idea. Damming up every river of any consequence except the Yellowstone hasn't been a good idea, either. So the stance many of us write from out here is 'Wait a minute, we'd better try something else. In "Mariah Montana," Jick McCaskill a rranges to protect his land when he retires from sheep ranching without selling out to developers or a big agri-business spread.
The result of Ivan Doig's passion for detail and "the lingo" is more than the sum of the parts. Much more, and it comes through most obviously in the clear personality and especially the sound character of the people we meet.
He has been described by one reviewer as "the most hopeful of writers - not blindly optimistic but deeply humanistic." A friend of mine wrote recently: "Over the past year I read most of his books and just fell in love with his characters and their goodness, and of course his descriptions of the West."
Another says she slows down when she gets near the end of a Doig novel because she doesn't want it to end. Not to worry. He's got many productive years ahead of him and plenty of history to mine ... with passion and precision.