Monday, September 18, 2017

Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig

I want to pay tribute to one of the really memorable writers of the last century and the first part of this one. Ivan Doig was born in 1939 and died in 2015. His last novel Last Bus to Wisdom, was published in the year he died. While I want to pay tribute to his entire oeuvre, I will focus in on the final work.

Doig said of himself “I come from the Lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view.” And certainly his novels that dealt with the massive Anaconda copper mine in Montana made it clear that his sympathies lie with the miners, the sheep herders, the homesteaders and not with huge agri-businesses and ranches that came to dominate the western frontier.

I have to admit I came to Doig rather slowly. I found his early novels interesting as stories of the immigrant settlers of Montana, but spoiled reader that I am, I at first saw his writing as a little too simplistic, even rustic. I was used to marvelous women word-weavers like Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Indeed, I felt I had been short-changed in my university literature courses which focused almost entirely on male writers, and when I discovered I had been assigned the long and rather dull Theodore Drieser novels when I might have been reading the the far superior Wharton, I pretty much gave up reading male novelists and concentrated instead on filling the huge gap in my reading, namely, that of women writers.

Still, Doig represented an important inroad for me back to male writers of the late 20th and early 21st century. Judging from his writing, I would say Doig is a good man, even a sweet one, and while I would not characterize him as a political novelist, he certainly wrote of and for common people. I have come to see almost all of his work as quite closely autobiographical. He was one of those rare writers who had best sellers in both fiction and nonfiction.  His superb portrayal of Montana, the nonfiction This House of Sky, is overtly autobiographical, but almost all of his novels have a young male narrator, and a manner of speech, even a type of humor that run like a vein through his works.

In his final novel, the boy narrator, Donal, is orphaned at an early age and raised by his grandmother who is a cook at various restaurants or for cattle and sheep ranches. Although she is a skillful and in-demand cook who could make a lot more money working in restaurants, she takes on the job of cook for the Double W ranch in order to have Donal at her side rather than with sitters. Although I won’t reveal too much of the story, I will reveal that his much-loved grandmother gets cancer and needs an operation and then a place to convalesce. While some nuns in their small Montana town agree to care for her after her operation, Donal has to be found a home until  she recuperates enough to go back to work and reclaim Donal.

He is put on a Greyhound bus which he calls the dog bus and sent clear across country to Wisconsin to live with his only other relative, his Aunt Kitty and her husband Dutch. About the first third of the novel is devoted to his cross-country bus-ride and the many people he meets and gets to sign his autograph book, which he hopes will someday win the Guiness Book of Records for most autographs. Donal is a bit like Lily Tomilin’s character, Edith Ann who is accused of making up stories. When she objects saying that grown ups mean by making up stories, lying, and she doesn’t lie, she then continues, “but you can make up the truth if you know how.” Donal is certainly in this class of storytellers, and his heartwarming and wise story is so full of down-to-earth humor and na├»ve goodness; he (and Doig) clearly know how to make up the truth.

Unfortunately, his Aunt Kate is a self-absorbed and selfish woman who has no real feelings for her grand-nephew and no idea of how to care for a young boy. Her only use for him is to teach him how to play canasta in order to fill in for one of a foursome who has droped out. Between her screaming at her husband, Herman (aka Dutch), and riding herd on poor Donal, he is facing a long and very boring summer. Turns out Herman (who is German rather than Dutch) is obsessively interested in stories of the wild west, and has spent a great deal of time reading a German author who writes of the shoot-um up west.

It does not take Aunt Kate long to repent of her impulsive offer to care for Donal, and long before the summer is over, she simply sends him back to Montana, though she knows that her sister is no condition to care for him, nor is there a place for him to stay. What could have been a sad and worrisome ride home on the big dog bus becomes a wonderful, rollicking trip when Uncle Herman decides to make his escape from his wife, whom he calls “the Kate,” by accompanying Donal. They head first for a big Indian carnival so Herman can finally see some Indians for himself.

Doig writes about what he knows, and that means about sheep and cattle and the workers who tend them. There is a quiet wisdom that bubbles up from the characters and events in his stories that would be difficult to put in capsule form. Suffice it to say that the more I read him, the wiser he seems, and I also have come to realize his rather plain style of writing serves very well for the stories he wanted to tell. While there is much heartbreak and hardship in all his works, there are also shining examples of loyalty and solidarity. 

Doig resisted the title western writer, and I can understand why. Yes, he writes of the west, of the people, but what he reveals is much wider than simply stories of the west. I am so glad that I allowed him to guide me back into at least a somewhat more balanced set of writers in terms of gender. Like Alice Munro and Elizabeth Strout, Doig reveals the extraordinary in ordinary people and so-called ordinary lives.

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