Historical Fiction With Contemporary Montana Edge

Doig delivers what his readers expect

Bucking the Sun

By Ivan Doig

Simon & Schuster,

412 pp., $23

If there is any potential problem with really enjoying a contemporary writer - relishing the thought of the next book - it's that the new work will simply replow safe ground, be too predictable in style and subject matter. Or, alternatively, that there will have been a jarring departure in approach.

With Ivan Doig's latest novel, fans need not worry. All the steel and sweetness, the granite and light, the humor and sharp dialogue, in Doig's writing are here with new flair and depth. The grit and warmth is pure Doig, only more so.

"Bucking the Sun," Doig's fifth novel (he has written three nonfiction books as well), is set in his home state of Montana during the Great Depression of the mid-1930s. Thanks to the Roosevelt administration, Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River is to be a massive public-works project that will employ thousands, including some whose homesteads will be inundated by the lake it creates.

The tale centers on the Duff family. Patriarch Hugh and his wife, Meg, Scottish immigrants who are just barely making it on land tougher than they are; their elder son, Owen, an engineer and "fillmaster" on what will be one of the largest earthen dams ever built; twin younger brothers, Neil and Bruce; and Hugh's brother Darius, a militant Marxist shipyard worker who shows up running from a violent past in Scotland carrying political and personal grudges.

Quite soon, all the Duff men are married - to women (two of them sisters) just as tough-minded, yet vulnerable, as the Duffs are. We know from the start that a man and a woman from two different couples will end up naked and dead in a truck that has rolled off the dam.

Doig has the perfect background for this kind of writing. He grew up on Montana ranches before going off to get a doctorate in history. His factual recounting of the Fort Peck Dam project is full of fascinating historical tidbits. The scenes where FDR himself came to see the project and speak to the awed assembly gives a gritty newsreel quality to events.

In fact, I kept wishing that photographs from that time had been included.

The promise of the era is fully felt, as well as the growing concern about events in Europe as the shadow of fascism falls. Some of the characters are politically radical to the point of being anarchic - a chilling precursor to the militias and "freemen" found in that part of the country today.

If there is one weakness in "Bucking the Sun," it's that the surreptitious affair between two of the Duffs is not fully developed - not developed at all, in fact. From all we're told, it could just as easily have been any two others, and there's plenty to work with here without it, which leaves one wondering why it's there in the first place.

But this is a relatively minor quibble. Ivan Doig is a terrific writer and a great storyteller with a healthy outlook as indicated in his dedication: "To novelists who deliver the eloquence of the edge of the world rather than stammers from the psychiatrist's bin."

I'm looking forward to his next work, whatever it may be.

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