Kurt Vonnegut, in his "autobiographical collage" Palm Sunday, recounts his argument with a Russian novelist who felt American writers had failed to produce a truly great novel on par with, say, War and Peace. Maybe so, Vonnegut concedes (though the point's debatable). But American writers, he counters, have produced something collectively richer: they've produced a literature, defining and refining the American experience from a thousand illuminating angles.
Something similar, scaled down, could be said of Butte, Montana. More than all but a few American cities, Butte has generated a collection of writings that—more than any single title probably could hope to—gives color and contour to a town, and an era, and a particularly American exuberance of almost mythic proportions. Montana native (now Seattle resident) Ivan Doig's new novel Work Song is unlikely to become the need-no-other standard bearer of Butte's literature, but it's a welcome addition to the shelf.
Butte's literature is usually cast as nonfiction. From newspaperman Richard K. O'Malley's memoir Mile High Mile Deep to C.B. Glasscock's The War of the Copper Kings, Butte's singular history as the motherlode of American copper production has placed it center stage for the true dramas of immigration, speculation, industrialization and labor relations, with all the real-life poetry that a multiethnic parade of hard-drinking, riches-seeking, hardrock miners and battling billionaires would suggest.
Butte novels have been rarer. Probably the most famous is Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, published in 1929, little more than a decade after Hammett had worked as a Pinkerton Agency detective in Butte (where, Hammett claimed, the Anaconda Mining Company offered him $5,000 to kill labor leader Frank Little, who soon after became the victim of an unsolved lynching). Work Song is the latest. The two make an instructive pairing.
Red Harvest is set in "Personville" (nicknamed "Poisonville," and unmistakably modeled on Butte) circa 1920, a time of economic domination by the (here unnamed) Anaconda Company and labor unrest complicated by periodic intrusions of the radical Industrial Workers of the World. Work Song, set in an undisguised Butte of 1919, shows no compunction about vilifying the Anaconda Company by name, and its main character is suspected—wrongly, at first—of being an outside agitator.
That's where the similarities end. Where Hammett used Butte for its atmosphere of grit and violence, Doig makes the city a character, and reduces its threat to shadows. Red Harvest is a mystery; Work Song is essentially a romance. Hammett's story and prose are prototypically hard-boiled. You might call Doig's poached, an early dinner at the Cracker Barrel to Red Harvest's red-eyed breakfast at the M&M.
Maybe that's too harsh a poke at a genuinely sweet book by a writer who is generous to his characters and readers alike, and who in any case clearly isn't aiming for noir. But for all the historical accuracy on display in Work Song, the true tumult—or at least the dramatically compelling mythos—of Butte circa 1919 feels absent. While the city housed thugs on both sides of the worker-management divide capable of dynamiting insufficiently radical union halls and hanging labor organizers from railroad trestles, Doig's company "goons" succumb quietly with a sucker punch to the funny bone. And while labor disputes and union strategizing pepper much of Doig's plot, his true love interest lies in the stacks of the fictionalized Butte library, where Doig's protagonist/narrator finds succor in the fondling of calf-clad classics.
That protagonist, Morrie Morgan—far more than Butte—is the horse that drives Work Song's cart. He's a carryover from Doig's 2006 bestseller The Whistling Season, set in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Marias Coulee, Montana (and Doig holds the door wide at Work Song's end for a third installment of Morrie's adventures). Work Song finds him arriving in Butte after a decade out of state, lodging at a boarding house run by a fetching widow telegraphically named Grace, and making the acquaintance of a ragtag crew of retired miners, malnourished street urchins, firebrand labor leaders, earnest schoolteachers and a rancher-turned-librarian with a secret past. The book starts off at a slow walk, taking in the view, but by its final third it's cantering briskly toward its neat—and perhaps too conscientiously signaled—conclusions.
But start to finish Morrie proves a character in the best sense of the word: a mild-mannered, too-clever, overly self-aware anachronism even in the now-anachronistic world of 1919. There's almost nothing specific to say about the story he tells without spoiling one of Doig's well-mapped plot points, but suffice it to say that his somewhat specialized skills are found happily if unexpectedly useful in his new Butte roost.
More to the point, he's awfully good company, unfailingly chivalrous and always at the ready with some antiquarian bon mot. He's a character with whom it's a pleasure to pass the time, no matter the scenery. And while one suspects that Dashiell Hammett might have fitted him with a Montana necktie in chapter three, less cynical sorts will look forward to catching up with him again, any time, anywhere.