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Montana Bound

book cover

Ivan Doig returns to his favorite state of mind

Bucking the Sun
By Ivan Doig
Simon & Schuster; 416 pages; $23 cloth

Reviewed by Andrew Pham

WHO SLEPT with whose spouse? And who killed whom? Who cares? It is a pain to see that in Bucking the Sun, Ivan Doig, a phenomenal writer of stunning prose and simple eloquence, is resorting to a contrived mystery technique to lure readers toward the end of his new novel.

If anything, Bucking the Sun lures its voyeurs back to Montana--Doig's Montana of the 1930s and '40s, so memorably depicted in his autobiographical This House of Sky--back to the harsh winters, the gnarled laborers and the rhythm of the language of its denizens. The book replays the rugged heartfelt qualities and foibles of the men and the steadfast strength and devotion of women, each measured by the thick calluses on their hands and the wrinkles on their faces.

It is a vivid take-me-by-the-hand journey. Only this time, we see another part of Montana, another way of life, this one just beyond the creek and over the mountains--far, but not too far, from the rolling parries where Ivan and his father, Charlie Doig, scrabbled out a living as ranchers locked in battles against beasts and elements.

Bucking the Sun, without its supposed narrative hook and sinker, is a natural extension--albeit a fictitious one--of This House of Sky. Fragments of the Scottish Charlie Doig, Ivan and his grandmother Bessie Ringer live on in members of the fictional Duff family, who also hail from Scotland.

Much of Ivan himself shows up in Owen, the prodigal son who, after a college education, returned to oversee the construction of the Fort Peck Dam, the most audacious project of the New Deal (damming the mighty Missouri River with earth), and to play guardian angel to his stubborn kin, who like many other Montanans during the Depression gathered around Fort Peck for relief work.

As it turns out, the sex/murder scandal is merely an excuse for Doig to spin his colorful and flavorful yarns about the Fort Peck Dam, the essence of the period and the rag-tag lives of the work force: ranch-hands, displaced farmers, prostitutes, opportunists, union organizers and anyone who needed a job. Read this book with one eye on the real carrot or your reaction to Doig's whodunit­grand finale will be an incredulous "Huh?"

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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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