By Ivan Doig
Scribner. 316 pp. $25
Montana has become the In Place among certain members of the cognoscenti, and as an unhappy consequence has suffered a small invasion of writers, film makers, movie stars and other undesirables. But one does not have to be a native to know that the environment they inhabit is a long way from the "real" Montana. A far more accurate depiction of it is to be found in the writing of Ivan Doig, who grew up in that desolate, beautiful state in a family of sheep ranchers and who has devoted himself to celebrating (and preserving) the Montana he knows in the pages of his books.
He has now published nine, of which Mountain Time is the sixth work of fiction. Here as before, his best writing is about landscape and place; he has more trouble with people, especially when he fills their mouths with stiff dialogue, but his abiding love for his home ground carries the day in Mountain Time, as it almost always does in his work.
Not surprisingly, given its central subject, that work has a strongly autobiographical cast, as certainly appears to be the case with Mountain Time. Doig doesn't do fictional autobiography as it's commonly practiced these days -- navel-gazing, mercifully, is not among the tricks of his trade -- but he uses the raw material of his own life as the starting point for exploring the lives of other people and the places where they live. Thus the protagonist of this novel, Mitch Rozier, is a Montanan now living in Seattle, as Doig himself does, and a man deeply concerned about the preservation of his home state's natural environment, as Doig himself is.
Mitch is, by his own reckoning, "a fifty-year-old unfeathered biped carrying too much weight," including "a marriage behind me that I wouldn't wish on an alimony lawyer," "grown children who maybe are what they are because I didn't wage a fifteen-year war over them with their mother, and they don't care spit about me," a job with a marginal Seattle newspaper that's teetering toward extinction, and a crotchety old father, Lyle, who has summoned him back to Montana for a renewal of their eternal standoff.
Mitch lives in Seattle with Lexa McCaskill, an earthy woman a decade younger than he who runs a small catering operation while trying to keep their loving but fragile relationship on a more or less even keel. Mitch is a big, athletic guy -- he played football at the University of Washington until the temptations of the 1960s counterculture got the better of him -- whose size disguises a soft and vulnerable heart. He writes a column called "Coastwatch" for a newspaper called Cascopia, and he writes mostly about the environment; he is no tree-hugger, but he loves nature and would just as soon that it not be turned into one gigantic parking lot.
He's been called back home to Twin Sulphur Springs on what turns out to be a pretext: His father claims to have it in mind to sell off the rocky land on which he has perched for years to Aggregate Construction Materials, Inc., the managers of which think "there's going to be oil and gas wells" in the vicinity. But it soon develops that Lyle has been told he has a terminal illness, and is wrapping up the loose ends of his life. When he tells Mitch the news, everything changes:
"One diagnostic word, all it took. The space of a breath had brought Mitch his turn in the gunsights of obligation. . . . Like the flyways of rattled birds, America's concourses were constantly crisscrossed with Baby Boomers trying to nerve up for the waiting bedside consultation, the nursing home decision, the choosing of a casket. Mitch could generally pick out the stunned journeyers home in airport waiting lounges, the trim businesswoman who lived by focus sitting there now with a doll-eyed stare, the man celebrating middle age with a ponytail looking down baffled now at his compassion-fare ticket. Targeted from here on, in featureless waiting rooms the color of antiseptic gloves, for the involuntary clerkwork of closing down a parent's life. The time came; it always came. The when of it was the ambush."
Mitch goes to Twin Sulphur Springs by himself, but when Lexa asks if he'd like her to join him, he immediately and gratefully says yes. Then, suddenly, they are joined by her sister, Mariah, a noted photographer, "a woman who cut trails through life as brisk as a comet, and as unfollowable." She ingratiates herself with Lyle, and tries to persuade him that she should make, and publish in newspapers, a photographic record of his final days. "There's this aging population," she tells him, "and a bazillion of us Baby Boomers who've never had to deal with anything more serious than burying the class hamster, back in first grade. I hate to say it, but people need to see your kind of situation."
Lyle really doesn't take much persuading, being not just contrary but egotistical in the bargain, with the result that a number of interconnected subplots are created: Mitch and Lyle, Mitch and Lexa, Lexa and Mariah, Lyle and Mariah, Mitch and Mariah, and, looming forever in the distance, Montana, "a country of great mountains and mediocre human chances." In addition, the story is freighted with a heavy burden of memory, as Mitch recalls his contentious dealings with his father, his own unhappy marriage, and the meeting in Alaska with Lexa -- herself then married to someone else -- that marked the beginning of the end of his old life, and hers.
These are a lot of balls to keep in the air, but by and large Doig is up to the challenge. If human speech presents formidable obstacles for him -- the phrase "wooden dialogue" has rarely been more apt -- human emotions do not; he understands his characters well, and manages to make them all the more interesting not in spite of their flaws but because of them. Lyle in particular is complex and surprising, especially as he struggles to disguise the fear that the disease inflicts upon him, fear such as he has not felt since he was a young man fighting in the South Pacific.
In Mountain Time as in life itself, people are more interesting than causes. Doig is an environmental true believer whose fiction often teeters along the narrow line between story and tract, but this time he successfully resists the temptation to preach. He lets the story tell itself, which is what stories are supposed to do.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.