Years ago when author Ivan Doig was asked about the pacing of English Creek, his first novel set in the sheep-ranching country of Montana, he replied:
“It never dawned on me that the actualities of life and how working people lived and went about their labors could be considered plodding; that you had to have green-eyed invaders from outer space before anything was happening… Along with its seasonal life, [the narrative needed] description of the country—sense of the country, sense of the past, as people tell stories and listen to stories… But, Christ, you could edit Faulkner and Conrad and Shakespeare and everybody else down to a third of their length and pretty much preserve what ostensibly happens. What you’d lose is the richness in life, and the richness in life is what I’m trying to get at.”
Though hopelessly lacking in green-eyed space invaders, English Creek delivers a forest-fire climax that ought to leave any attentive reader winded, sweating and choking on the smoke. English Creek also introduces two Doig trademarks: breathtaking depictions of the western landscape and a finely tuned ear for regional dialogue matched only, among writers (roughly) of Doig’s generation, by Clyde Edgerton and Louise Erdrich. Doig effortlessly renders the multiple ways Montana ranchers and forest rangers inflect “son-of-a-bitch,” and leaves little doubt about the nuances of meaning that distinguish each one.
What’s more, he doesn’t just know how these guys talk, but what they talk about. Tacked up in the English Creek national forest ranger station is a “carbon copy gag” detailing “Subjects under discussion during one summer (timed by stopwatch) by U.S. Forest Service crews, trail, fire, maintenance, and otherwise.” Entries include “Sexual stories, experiences, and theories, 37%”; “Personal adventures in which narrator is hero, 23%”; “Memorable drinking jags, 8%”; “Acrimonious remarks about bosses, foremen and cooks, 5%”; “Sarcastic evaluations of ex-President Hoover, 2%”; “Sears Roebuck catalogue versus Montgomery Ward catalogue, 2%”; concluding with “The job at hand, 1%.”
Over the course of a 36-year literary career, Doig, who died at age 75 last April, painted as detailed and complete a picture of the American West as any writer of the last century. Though he’s known best for the visual and pastoral quality of his writing, Doig remained, at heart, an old-fashioned storyteller. He populated his vision of the West not with gunslingers but with workaday ranch hands and dam builders and miners, frontier-town bartenders, itinerant schoolteachers, newspaper editors and Rocky Mountain Front kids from cobbled-together families like his own.
Doig wrote about Scottish immigrants homesteading and sheep-ranching in Montana in the 1880s; teaching in a one-room schoolhouse during a miners’ strike in 1919; catching on with the Fort Peck Dam Public Works Administration project in the 1930s; growing up in a Rocky Mountain Front barroom in the 1950s; and a grandfather traveling Montana with his journalist granddaughter to celebrate and editorialize the state’s centennial in 1979. Doig didn’t live through all those times, of course, and (as he described memorably in his 1978 memoir, This House of Sky) he chose to leave behind sheep ranching at a young age. But Doig grew up among people who built the West, and witnessed decades of growth and dramatic changes in the land and economy of the region. His death marked the passing of a vital connection to the people and the world and times he wrote about. Fortunately, he bequeathed to us all a bountiful body of work that’s not just Doig’s own legacy, but an evocative and definitive document of the world he came from.
Ivan Doig’s last book, the appropriately titled Last Bus to Wisdom, is an unpredictable and boisterous road novel about 11-year-old boy in the summer of 1951, cast adrift on the Greyhound “dog bus.” Last Bus to Wisdom offers a fresh take on several familiar Doig themes: nontraditional families, deep connection to the land, the West as a hardscrabble world of work and the profoundly (and often humorously) interwoven nature of everyday individual lives and political and social history.
As the book begins, adolescent Donal Cameron’s grandmother and guardian, a ranch cook in the Two Medicine country of Montana, packs him off to Manitowoc, Wisconsin to spend the summer at her sister’s house while she undergoes an operation. Donal makes a last-minute plea to arrogant ranch owner Wendell Williamson (who appears in a number of Doig books) to keep him on to drive the stacker team to no avail.
Thus begin Donal’s adventures on the Greyhound bus, which bring him into contact with a host of unusual characters, including salty-talking soldiers on their way to bootcamp, a wisecracking convict in the company of a dour sheriff, a solicitous salesman in a pigeon-gray suit who attempts to steal Donal’s suitcase, a sexy supper-club waitress who knows his grandmother and a laconic, insomniac writer who turns out to be none other than Jack Kerouac.
Donal invites them all to sign his “autograph book,” and each one contributes a bit of greeting-card whimsy or age-inappropriate verse. In an inscription that mingles an obscure bit of Kerouac’s own writing with Doig’s own clever Kerouacisms, the Beat-era wordsmith writes about writing and storytelling, offering Donal “advice free for the taking if you want to live life as she be in this mad bad buggered old contraption of a country,” and signs it, “Jack Kerouac, On the road somewhere South of the moon and north of Hell.”
Upon arriving in Manitowoc, after more misadventures along the way, Donal meets his Aunt Kitty (a dead ringer for “God Bless America” belter Kate Smith), and his Uncle Herman, a one-eyed German immigrant who appears to have learned English vocabulary and cadence from translated Western pulp novels by Karl May. Donal quickly discovers that there’s little for a kid to do in Manitowoc besides listen to his aunt and uncle fight, and hide out with Herman in his greenhouse to get a temporary respite from Aunt Kitty’s unremitting wrath.
After matters go from bad to worse in Manitowoc, Donal finds himself unceremoniously exiled from Aunt Kitty’s house and back on the bus to Montana, with an unexpected traveling companion: Uncle Herman, who has decided to light out for the territories as well. As they make their way to the Crow Fair, a world-class powwow/rodeo hosted by the Crow Nation, Last Bus to Wisdom’s most enthralling adventures begin.
As with any road novel, the off-road interlude in Manitowoc leaves the reader chomping at the bit to break away and move on. If anything, that feeling is heightened by the knowledge that this is Doig’s last book, and time is a-wasting far afield from the Montana wellspring of his inspiration. Doig writes his share of funny and compelling Wisconsin scenes, but Last Bus to Wisdom kicks into high gear when Herman and Donal (posing and grandfather and grandson) are on the loose and Montana-bound. As Doig writes, “there is no other thrill quite like disappearing.”
Donal and Herman’s travels twice bring them into contact with Donal’s hero, the champion rodeo buck rider Rags Rasmussen—first at the Crow Fair and later during their stint on a crew of itinerant haymakers on a Montana ranch. In a goosebump-inducing encounter on the ranch, Donal confesses to Rags his dream of becoming a rodeo announcer, and tries out his deepest announcer’s voice on Rags. The rodeo star shakes his hand and affirms his talent: “I’m sure not gonna bet against you.” Writing as Donal, reflecting 60 years later on this pivotal moment in his life, Doig looks back metaphorically on the realization of his own writing ambitions, and offers up what might suffice as a summation of his own efforts as a chronicler of the old-to-modern working West:
“In the magic of that moment, the dream began to turn real. With his spirit in the world of rodeo as great as Manitou in the ghostland of the past, the vision never left me. I could foretell it clear as seeing it into a mirror… For the hundreds upon hundreds of rodeos witnessed at the announcing microphone, those became within reach with that extended hand of Rags Rasmussen. I have had but to live up to what he called the gift.”
Anyone who knows Doig’s work can be thankful that the author lived up to his own gift, remaining acutely attuned to the vistas, voices, and rigors of life in the American West right to the end.