Ivan Doig’s Gab Lab

Department Literary Lode

Fans of Ivan Doig’s books love his expressions.

Pleasure comes too from the subliminal effect of the rhythm of his sentences. Having started as a poet, he worked hard on making sentences read well, not necessarily correctly. As a journalist, he learned to describe and document events. His note-taking was famous and scrupulous. He taught us more about Montana then we ever knew and he entertained us, often bringing tears to our eyes whether through humor or tugs at our heart.

After Ivan Doig died (April 2015), his papers were donated to Montana State University’s Special Collections department, where they are in the process of being archived. Some of the papers are available (even online) now. I delved into notes relating to The Bartender’s Tale, published in 2012.  Just as his final book, Last Bus to Wisdom, is narrated by a young lad (12 years old), so is The Bartender’s Tale, in this case Rusty.

To write from the point of view of a kid, Doig collected kid slang.  Here are some examples of the expressions he heard and wrote on index cards. 

Swuft (meaning smart and cool). 

Too much. 

Wowie Sheesh. 

Out of sight! Great. 

Don’t flip, but, Fine / 

Yay! Boo. 

Aw, crud.

Crazy shnook groovy Right on. 

How about that. 

Later, gator. 

I flipped over that./ Don’t flip (, but...) Can’t win them all. 

Tom Harry is Rusty’s father and the owner of the Medicine Lodge, a legendary bar located in the small town of Gros Ventre.  The story takes place mostly in the Lodge or fishing holes nearby.  We can picture Ivan Doig enjoying bars and filing away notes on the atmosphere, many details of which find their way into the book.  [The punctuation below is his.]

Med Lodge as sanctuary: it sounds like a (wildlife refuge) or (place for monks), but look it up …

To step in, you never would have known that the Medicine Lodge hadn’t been in business every day of the past few hundred years. 

The laboring whir of the ceiling fan above the bar in summertime 

a glass that would soothe both your thirst and your worries Whatever kind of drinker, light or heavy 

off the bar stool every second beer to visit the toilet

There is nothing like watching alcohol change a person before your eyes to learn about shades of character 

The Medicine Lodge wasn’t changeless. Nothing is. But it held a sense of (being changeless). 

You could riffle them together like playing cards

Tom never hesitated to throw out a pest. 

No Keno, punchboards, etc 

ice machine makes a fortune from tourists 

roughouse kidding (changed w/ generations, but always went on) 

a male preserve but not entirely. Velma Simms, somebody’s wife — still a looker, though thin as some women get as they age; comes in certain night(s) of the week, has 2 Manhattans. 

00 headed for the toilet (walking) like a sailor on a rolling deck. 

Herb asks Tom how old the Med Lodge is. Tom shrugs, “Way to hell and gone back.” 

customers who drink until their eyeballs were floating 

Barfly was a cruel term, but right in its image of hovering within smell and touch of booze.

patron/ patronage/patronize paying customer 

Nothing embodies our delight in Doig’s prose more than the way people talk, each in their own style.  In fact, in The Bartender’s Tale a language researcher, named Delano to honor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with a radio lab arrives, wanting to record everything about the bar and Tom.  Rusty has to interpret these snatches of  dialogue for him. 

“That honyocker (backwards farmer) was supposed to help out on this fencing deal, but he called up sick.  Allergic to postholes, I imagine.  So I guess I got to go at it bald-headed.”

“Didn’t you hear? She left him, for some scissorbill (cocky type) at their high school reunion.”

“Poached deer.”

“Toasting to faith in the future.”

“I’m calling it a night.  I got to go out in the morning and do the round dance.” (plow a field round and round)

“Tom, when you get a chance, how about a couple more glasses of vitamin B for us down at this end.”

Tom is secretive about his past and jaunts to Canada but has the most interesting things to say.

“Don’t put beans up your nose”  —  a warning to Rusty

“Hey, close your mouth unless you want to catch flies.” 

“Don’t stretch the facts to fit the situation.” 

 “Get it out of your system.  Get that out of your head. Your head is too busy.” To Tom, Rusty’s “mind goes like an eggbeater.”

“Don’t come unglued…do mankind a service.”

“You better take it a little bit easy” (to a rowdy customer)

“Don’t be a plague of locusts”

“Live dangerously”

“That’s not such a sharp idea.”

“No crap/  no bee ess”

“That ess of a b”

“Décor” – pronounced dee-cor

“Cripes.  Ye gods. Blaze”

“Just don’t push it. What’s the story?”

“Forget it, kid.”

“Run that by me again?”

“Don’t wrinkle your brain about it.”

“Don’t get in an uproar. Don’t get hydrophobia. Don’t get in a fluster.”

“How about some crushed orangutan (orange crush)?”

“You aren’t just woofing.”

“Don’t be a hammerhead. Don’t be a dumb cough.” (dummkopf)

“A taxi dancer,” Tom explains to the naïve Rusty means renting someone to dance with you.

A divorce is “splitting the blanket”

The story involves a trip to Fort Peck because Delano persuades Tom to go to a reunion of the folks who built the dam and frequented a 24/7 bar called the Blue Eagle that Tom owned then.  Del and Rusty ask him how the dam was made and what “mudjacks” were.

Tom says, “Say you wanted to take one of those buttes” — he was squinting in the distance toward the only landmarks anywhere around, the Sweetgrass Hills, rising like three Treasure Islands on the horizon — “and use it to dam up the Missouri River.  What’s the slickest way to move that much fill?”

“Uhm, lots and lots of trucks?”

Wrong his expression told me, not even close.  “You’d be trucking for a hundred years.  Naw, what you want to do is add water,” he said, as though mixing up the simplest drink.  “Dredge up the soil, turn it into mud, a kind of slurry anyhow, and then pipe the stuff to where you want it.  Dump enough of it and guess what, you’ve got a dam.”

And a little later, Doig explains even more about the dam via Tom. 

“Those things [pieces of machinery] took a real bite out of the riverbank at a time.  A whole hillside would be gone before you could give it a second look, and you’d wonder where the hell it went to.  Then way down at the end of the pipeline” — he flourished his cigarette toward the horizon until the ash was about to drop — you’d see this brown geyser shooting out, and mudjack crews all over the dam like an anthill that had been stirred up.  (He paused).  It was quite the sight.”

Was this great or what? (Rusty thinks.) It sure is and that’s the way Ivan Doig gave us Montana and its people in his books.

© Photos Courtesy of the Merrill G. Burlingame's Special Collections & Archives of the Montana State University Library

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