An American tale of greed and love

. June 29, 2012.

If you’re already familiar with Ivan Doig’s writing, the only encouragement you need to pick up his most recent novel is to learn that it’s available in bookstores. Doig is arguably the most authentic and powerful voice of the modern, post cowboys-and-Indians American West, and one of the most enjoyable writers in any genre to boot. He has an uncanny ability to paint broad pictures of grand historical events, while working into their frameworks pointillistically detailed lives of unknown, but still larger than life, individuals.

As luck would have it, I finished Doig’s thirteenth book, Work Song, on the day last fall when the Chilean miners were rescued—a happy synchronicity in which I took a double dose of pleasure. Work Song is about mining and miners too, and also has—I’m not giving away much here—a happy ending. And, like the story of the Chilean miners, Work Song also vividly conveys the backbreaking labor, danger, greed and the willingness of mining companies to cut corners at the cost of miners’ lives, that has been the hallmark of mining lives for hundreds of years

In his previous novels and memoirs, Doig has mined the rich vein of stories, myths and legends of today’s and yesterday’s West, and while Work Song is also set in Doig’s familiar bailiwick, it takes place nearly a hundred years ago, a time period Doig has not previously explored. The setting allows Doig to once again display his unerring ear for language. He always captures the dialect and idioms of his characters’ speech just right. Work Song’s people speak in a slower-paced, yet colorful, almost extravagant language, incomparably richer than our current stripped-down email and texting communications. Someone serves “a pot of coffee of a stoutness that would have brought the Light Brigade back to life.” 

While the language is unhurried, the setting is not languorous. Doig has chosen to write of an extremely volatile time and place—as full of dramatic change as our present world. “America in that agitated time; not merely a nation, but something like a continental nervous condition.” Writing of America in the early twentieth century, buffeted by international events, World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the origins of our “national hysteria about Bolsheviks and Communists,” he says, “America’s habit of throwing a fit to ward off contagion was at high pitch; activists with a leftist tinge were being hounded by government agents, even jailed or deported.”

But Work Song, for all its politics and history, is above all a love story. Morris Morgan has a lot of joys and sorrows in his past and he’s escaped from those sorrows to search for new joys. He meets the aptly named Grace on the second page of the book and… well, I already told you it was a happy ending.

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