Ariana Paliobagis, owner of the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, distilled the feelings of a packed house Tuesday night with one emotion-laden sentence: “I can’t talk about Ivan Doig in the past tense, because that would be like letting him go.”
There’s not much chance of that—not with Doig’s 14 novels (the last of which, Last Bus to Wisdom, was released Tuesday), two memoirs and a book of essays still out in the world, and not with seven guest speakers who offered wide-ranging accounts of how Doig, who died in April at age 75, helped shape their art and their perceptions of Montana.
Tuesday’s event in Bozeman was one of several Doig tributes held in Montana and nationwide in conjunction with the release of his posthumous novel. Paliobagis’ staff filled the house for a nearly two-hour event that brought laughter and poignant reflection in equal measures.
Mary Jane Di Santi, who operated the Country Bookshelf for three decades before selling the store to Paliobagis, recalled a long association with Doig that began with the publication of This House of Sky, the 1979 memoir that put him on the literary map and was a recurrent touchstone throughout the evening.
By the end of her bookselling career, Di Santi said, she had built an abiding friendship with Doig and his wife, Carol, and the writer would punctuate every visit to the store by telling Di Santi the title of his next work and asking her to keep it to herself, which she always did. The pattern held true with Last Bus to Wisdom, she said, and then she pointed at her stack of Doig originals on the lectern. “Maybe I’d like to read them all again before I read the last one.”
Billings novelist Russell Rowland told about approaching Doig for an endorsement of his first novel, In Open Spaces, and the author’s uncommon grace in agreeing to provide one. The blurb for the novel—which Doig greatly admired—never found its way onto the book, but Rowland said the best possible tribute came at a later meeting, when Doig looked at Rowland’s mother and said, “Your son is a fine writer.”
Such stories of generosity flourished Tuesday night. Great Falls novelist Jamie Ford told of Doig seeking him out as a fellow Montanan at a literary event in Portland just as Ford’s debut, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was coming out. Later, Doig asked Ford for an endorsement of his own novel, Work Song, and Ford wrote back to Doig’s editor with this suggestion: “I’m not worthy—Jamie Ford.”
Ford spoke humorously of a bond he shared with the great writer. “Here he was, writing about Montana and living in Seattle, and I was living in Montana and writing about Seattle. I was afraid if we shook hands, there would be this ‘Freaky Friday’ thing and we’d swap lives.”
Paul Wylie, a nonfiction author based in Bozeman, had a distinction no one else in the audience could claim: He used to walk to school with Doig when they were boys in White Sulphur Springs. Even then, Wylie said, Doig was honing the keen observation and memory that informed so much of his fiction. He recalled a time when Doig sat waiting in a pickup for his father, Charlie, and kindly deflected other kids’ entreaties to come play.
“He could entertain himself with his own mind,” Wylie said. “You knew he was looking at houses and memorizing details, the shades of sunset.”
As the evening wore on and the stories piled up, you got the impression that Doig was the perfect vessel to carry tales about Montana, blessed as he was with an unerring ability to bring characters to three-dimensional life, to invoke disparate eras of the state and territory, and to form deep connections with the landscape.
Missoula novelist Malcolm Brooks, author of the acclaimed Painted Horses, told of a transformative trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness with his 16-year-old son and their encounter with a ranger the likes of whom would have shown up in a Doig novel. “My son looked at me and said, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a cowboy,’” Brooks said, his eyes welling. “I said, ‘Kid, me, too.’”
When it was my turn to speak, I replayed a trip to Montana in 1989, when I was 19, and how that, along with my first dose of Doig, ignited my desire to come here and write stories. That chance that came my way in 2006, long after I figured it was one of those dreams that would go unrealized. If I could say anything to Doig now, I said, it would be this: “Montana has fulfilled every promise he ever made on its behalf.”
But it was Billings author Carrie La Seur (The Home Place) who offered perhaps the most striking observation about why Doig’s work resonates so deeply inside and outside his home state. She detailed her own family’s struggles to gain a foothold here, saying, “Nobody got rich. We got poor and poorer. …
“Ivan Doig tells those stories. The question is why in the world we want to hear them, and why we hold them up as what’s most precious about Montana. For me, out of my own heritage, the stories are a source of strength, both knowing what my ancestors endured and believing that they did it so the kids could have a better life. …
“But there are others who come to Doig’s work fresh, without the wagonload of fragrant emotional baggage some of us have where Montana is concerned. In a way, I envy anyone who can come to Doig with a fresh heart and none of the rough-healed scars of history. You’ll notice a great many ex-pats among writers with Montana roots, including Doig, and I think it’s because his true topic is, as he put it, ‘that larger country: life.’ Montana just happens to give an exceptionally good grounding, for better or worse, in reality.”
Craig Lancaster is a novelist who lives in Billings. His most recent book, This Is What I Want, was released in late July.
Ivan Doig’s works
♦ The Sea Runners (1982)
♦ English Creek (1984)
♦ Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987)
♦ Ride with Me, Mariah Montana (1990)
♦ Bucking the Sun (1996)
♦ Mountain Time (1999)
♦ Prairie Nocturne (2003)
♦ The Whistling Season (2006)
♦ The Eleventh Man (2008)
♦ Work Song (2010)
♦ The Bartender’s Tale (2012)
♦ Sweet Thunder (2013)
♦ Last Bus to Wisdom (2015)
♦ This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind (1979)
♦ Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America (1980, co-written with James G. Swan)
♦ Heart Earth (1993)