Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Work Song: Another Doig Hit

Ivan Doig is a terribly inventive writer. As one of the preeminent writers of the American West anything he puts on paper is worth reading. Doig provides us with a thinking man’s glimpse into the Wild West; always looking beyond the cowboys and gunfights and providing a more complex –but always fun- account of the settling of this unsettled land.

In his most recent novel, Work Song, he has found the perfect backdrop to showcase his storytelling and writing talent: Butte, Montana. At one time during the past century Butte not only had the largest red-light district in the US but was also home to more millionaires per capita than any place on the planet thanks to its massive copper deposits which earned it the reputation as the “richest hill on earth” (curiously enough, Butte also produced the great Evil Knevil -arguably its greatest natural resource). Naturally this promise of instant wealth drew every type of character imaginable to the little town at the foot of the Rockies and this melting pot provides a rich and fertile canvass for Doig and his talents.

In Work Song Doig bring backs the popular protagonist Morrie Morgan from The Whistling Season (Harcourt, 2006) and he provides the same insightful narrative as an educated fish-out-of-water in his new surroundings among immigrant miners. Hoping to strike it rich in Butte he instead stumbles into a position as librarian overseeing “the finest set of books west of Chicago.” It’s while working at this fantastic library under a bearded mountain of a man known as the “strangler” that he runs into a former student and quickly finds himself embroiled in a battle between the powerful mine owners and the miners’ union. He manages to complicate his situation even further by falling for the widowed –and apparently off limits- owner of his boarding house.

The book begins a bit uneven and some of this has to do with the assumed familiarity of the reader with Morgan from Doig’s previous work. But the reader needn’t be familiar with any of his other books to appreciate Work Song and patience is generously rewarded once the book hits its stride. By the time we were midway through we couldn’t put the book down. There are times when the writing seems more clich├ęd than folksy and some of the characters are memorable only for their caricature-like qualities. But this takes little away from the overall enjoyment of the book and as a protagonist Morgan is a complex and compelling figure whom Doig skillfully uses as a vehicle to project elements about the broader time and place he occupies as he reveals the various layers of the man.

Doig’s real skill is telling a story and using the historical context of the West to paint a memorable setting; he’s done a masterful job bringing a turn-of-the-century mining town to life. Work Song hums over the final 150 pages and the ending proves to be more fulfilling than expected as the story works to a plotted crescendo with the writing getting tighter with every turn of the page.

Work Song is a quick and fulfilling read and while perhaps not Doig’s greatest work it’s well worth a look. He’s a fascinating man and a fine writer and his latest book is a unique period piece that you won’t forget any time soon. Highly recommended by The Literate Man -as are most of his Doig’s books.


  1. I need to read one of these books by my distant cousin..
    Kenneth S. Doig

  2. One of the greatest, most underappreciated writers in America, Doig is nearly peerless in crafting a complex supporting cast with very few plot dumps.