The great man smiled on us all

Tuesday night in Bozeman, in one of the singular honors of my writing life, I helped pay tribute to Ivan Doig at the Country Bookshelf. I’ll point you to the story I wrote for Last Best News if a nuts-and-bolts recounting is what you’re interested in.

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For me, the moments of wonder came after the seven of us—Mary Jane Di Santi, Russell Rowland, Malcolm Brooks, me, Paul Wylie, Carrie La Seur, and Jamie Ford—had spoken, as we mingled with the full house of Doig admirers who came out on a lovely night, as past and present collided all around me, and the depth of the great writer’s impact on us played out.

I couldn’t help but think of just how much of my own life has been marked off by his books. How I fell in love with Dancing at the Rascal Fair after a thrown-together trip to Montana from Texas when I was nineteen years old. How the books kept coming and I kept going and the years kept rising and falling. I took newspaper jobs in Texas and Alaska and Kentucky and Ohio and California and Montana. I marched through my twenties and thirties and into my forties, and Doig kept returning to the Montana of his forebears, of his childhood, of his middle years, of his sunset. And I kept falling in love, over and over again.

What else and who else, family aside, had seen me through from a pimply teenager to a graying, balding middle-ager? Nothing and no one I can think of.

And there I was, introducing my Aunt Linda and Uncle John to my present-day colleague and friend Scott McMillion, and they told him stories of my little-guy years, things beyond the boundaries of my recollection. How I memorized facts and figures and spat them out indiscriminately, regardless of the interest of my chosen audience. How my harried mother would set me in the car in our driveway in Casper, Wyoming, and let me pretend just for a while that I was a driver, so she could buy some precious time with her own thoughts.

It was the second time during the evening that I was reminded of the awesome power of memory. Paul Wylie, who knew Doig when they were children, talked of Doig’s patiently sitting in a pickup on Main Street in White Sulphur Springs, waiting for his father, Charlie, to return from some errand. Doig, he said, was already sharpening the memories he’d return to throughout his career, taking note of how the buildings sagged and how the light struck them just so. That invocation of the past moved through me like a ghost. In a different, later time, I was that kid, sitting on a bar stoop, waiting for my own father to reach his limit, or watching from the cab of his water truck while he chased down just one more test shot in some far-flung Western locale. I marveled at this idea that Doig and I had both partaken of that thrilling loneliness, consuming some for sustenance and stashing the rest in the recesses of our minds, to be pulled out decades later and repurposed into fiction. (And that, by the way, is the only comparison with Doig I’ll ever allow myself to be pulled into. In matters of memory and letters and everything else, he is my greater.)

Everybody who spoke Tuesday brought some different aspect of Doig out for the appreciative crowd to consider. In totality, it covers a wide, deep field—past and present, identity given and assumed, the land as both character and anchor, and always, always an optimism that didn’t flinch in the face of darkness. It was quite a night. And while none of us is ready to let Ivan Doig go—not four months ago, when he died, not today, and not ever—I’d almost be willing to accept that he’ll never write another sentence if we could just sit down again, whenever we need to, and commune around the memory of all that he gave us.