By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 18, 2010; B08
By Ivan Doig
Riverhead. 275 pp. $25.95
I van Doig, who turned 71 three weeks ago, has had an interesting, productive life. A native of Montana, he has worked as a reporter, editorialist, rancher and magazine editor. He has lived in Seattle for many years, but Montana remains the central preoccupation of his writing. He has published a dozen books, nine of them novels, most of them dealing in one way or another with his home state: its lusty past, its natural beauty, its endangered environment. Though he has a tin ear for speech and really should stop writing dialogue, his descriptive powers can be acute, as in this portrait of Butte in 1919, as painted by Morrie Morgan, the narrator of "Work Song":
"Everything about Butte made a person look twice. My train journey had brought me across the Montana everyone thinks of, mile upon hypnotic mile of rolling prairie with snowcapped peaks in the distance, and here, as sudden and surprising as a lost city of legendary times, was a metropolis of nowhere: nearly a hundred thousand people atop the earth's mineral crown, with nothing else around but the Rocky Mountains and the witnessing sky. The immediate neighborhood on the skirt of land out from the depot, as my gaze sorted it out, seemed to hold every manner of building from shanty to mansion, church to chicken coop, chop suey joint to mattress factory, all mixed together from one topsy-turvy block to the next. Butte stood more erect as the ground rose. In the city center, several blocks on up the slope, lofty buildings hovered here and there waiting for others to catch up, and the streets also took on elevation, climbing the blemished hill until workers' cottages mingled with mines and dump heaps along the top of the namesake butte. Up there, the long-legged black steel frameworks over the mineshafts populated the skyline like a legion of half-done miniatures of Eiffel's tower."
That's not poetry, but mercifully it doesn't try to be. Instead, it's good, solid descriptive prose that conveys a strong sense of place. Doig is also a trained historian -- he has a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Washington -- and he has deliberately set "Work Song" in a troubled, dangerous hour:
"The immeasurable shadow of the 1914-1918 war still lay over the affairs of nations; Europe's old jealously held boundaries were being torn up and rewritten, for better or worse, at the Paris peace conference. Russia already had shaken the political firmament by doing away with the Czar and yielding to the new fist of the Bolsheviks. America's habit of throwing a fit to ward off contagion was at high pitch; activists with a leftist tinge were being hounded by government agents, even jailed or deported. Alongside that, the laboring class started at a deep disadvantage whenever it challenged the masters of capital. Strikes were its only effective tool, the way things were, but the powers that be resisted those with force if necessary. It added up to a jittery period of history, did it not?"
That's History Lite, to be sure, but it does put in context the story Doig tells about labor troubles at the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which owned Butte in those days the way DuPont owns Wilmington. Unfortunately, though, having quoted these two paragraphs as evidence of the good to be found in "Work Song," I can no longer put off getting around to the bad. Not to put too fine a point on it, "Work Song" is the worst work of fiction to cross my desk in years. I don't keep a chronological record so cannot cite chapter and verse as to which was the last novel I found as bad as this one -- it may have been Joan Didion's "Democracy," published a quarter-century ago, or Erica Jong's "How to Save Your Own Life," published in 1977 -- but it is my unhappy duty to report that "Work Song" is a world-class dud, a sequel to Doig's popular "The Whistling Season" (2006) but hardly its equal.
"Work Song" is not set in corn country, though Lord knows there's plenty of corn in it, and it's full of what an old-time North Carolina newspaper editor delighted in calling "shucks and nubbins," roughly defined as folksiness so posed and artificial that the reader is left not charmed but nauseated. It's jes' chock full o' characters so quaint 'n' cute you want to execute them on the spot. Chief among these is the aforementioned Morrie Morgan, whose "rightful name" is Morgan Llewellyn but who had to shed it after a run-in with Chicago gangsters. Now, he has made his way to Butte, running from a failed romance in a town where he had worked as a schoolteacher.
First, he finds a room in a boarding house run by a fetching widder lady, Grace Faraday, the other boarders being two miners, Wynford Griffith and Maynard Hooper, a.k.a. Griff and Hoop: "Although they looked enough alike to be brothers, I figured out that they had simply worked together so long in the mineshafts that the stoop of their bodies and other inclinations had made them grow together in resemblance as some old married couples do." They are meant to be a mixture of comic relief and miners'-union solidarity, but they aren't in the least amusing, and their rhetoric is stale. For his part Morrie has no desire to go down into the mines, so first he takes a job as a "representative of the Peterson Modern Mortuary and Funeral Home," which is to say designated "cryer" at local wakes, but then he gets lucky and lands a job as master of all trades at the incongruously grand public library.
He is taken on by the imperious major domo of the library, Samuel Sandison, a former rancher whose splendid book collection is the jewel in the library's crown. Sandison likes Morrie because he loves books, and takes him on ostensibly to manage the schedule of meetings held in the library, but soon enough Morrie has his hands full: "Day by day, besides my juggling act with the meetings schedule, it had been gruffly suggested to me that I organize the disorganized subscription list of magazines and newspapers, find someone to fix the drinking fountain, deal with [the librarian's] complaints about squeaky wheels on book carts passing through her sanctum, respond to a stack of letters from people with the kinds of questions only a library can answer -- in short, I was tasked with anything Sandison did not want to do, which was very nearly everything."
On and on the novel drones. A couple of Chicago goons show up, again ostensibly for comic relief, but if you want funny goons, I recommend "Kiss Me Kate" and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," because every attempt to make these guys funny falls flat. The radical International Workers of the World -- the "Wobblies" -- loom ominously in the background, but all their looming doesn't amount to a thing. Instead, Doig places Morrie -- whom he clearly finds charming, clever and pixyish -- at the head of a truly ludicrous competition to compose a battle hymn for the miners of the Hill, in the spirit of "Onward, Christian Soldiers," behind which they can march into battle against the feared and hated Anaconda.
All in all, take away a couple of modestly quotable paragraphs and "Work Song" is mawkish, corny, clumsy and uninviting. It is an utter mystery that Doig, who should know better, wrote it and that his new publisher, who should know better, agreed to issue it. But you, dear reader, who most certainly know better, are under no obligation to read it.