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Cowboy’s Quill: Western literary review

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Ivan Doig: Novelist

By Doug Hare EBS Staff

Too often, authors from Montana are pigeonholed as “regional writers.” Ivan Doig, who passed away in April of 2015, was a native Montanan and most of his 16 novels take place in his home state. But Doig (pronounced DOY-guh) was a great novelist by any standard, not just a scribe of the American West.

It’s often said that writers should write what they know. The best of them are able to transcend the time and places they describe so vividly.

the-last-bus-to-wisdomOn his website, Doig wrote, “I don’t think of myself as a ‘Western writer.’ To me, language—the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose—is the ultimate ‘region,’ the true home, for a writer.”

His final book, “Last Bus to Wisdom,” was published posthumously and stands out as one of his best works, a parting gift from the Wallace Stegner Award winner.

Like his other novels “The Whistling Season” and “The Bartender’s Tale,” “Last Bus” is a story narrated by an imaginative child who sees the world of adults through an innocent yet preternaturally penetrating gaze.

“Last Bus to Wisdom” follows a precocious 11-year-old orphan named Donal Cameron taking a Greyhound bus from the fictional town Gros Ventre, Montana, to Wisconsin and back again. It is an odyssey, a period piece and a coming-of-age tale in 1950s America. “Back then, you dressed up to go places,” he writes.

In his last yarn, Doig weaves together a rollicking tale filled with memorable characters, including a young Jack Kerouac scribbling away deep into the night. His sentences are always lyrical and at times meandering. But the joy of storytelling constantly percolates just beneath the surface of Doig’s unpredictable, serendipitous plot and his narrator’s lively embellishments.

Doig began his career as a journalist, dabbled in poetry, earned a Ph.D. in history then found his favorite form in the novel. His last book captures the landscapes and people of his youth in a way that transports the reader to a simpler time.

By the end of Doig’s voyage, you can’t help but come away with a wiser, more humane understanding of the fragility of the human condition. This is one Greyhound trip well worth the fare.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Coordinator for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

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