Sweet nothing 

Doig's latest doesn't offer enough storm

Sweet Thunder, Ivan Doig's newest novel about miners vs. management in 1921 Butte, is true to its title. It is sweet. Maybe too much so. It's an interesting yarn set at a turbulent time in Montana history, but it is weakened by thinly drawn characters, the age-old plot device of mistaken identity and the author's seeming unwillingness to let the conflict get much beyond a simmer. The ending seems a bit too pat and perfunctory.

Still, Doig knows his Montana history. His period detail involving Butte in its mining heyday is a trip back in time. If you've ever driven through Butte and wondered why it was once number one of the state's cities, this will remind you. They didn't call it the Richest Hill on Earth for nothing. The hill is mostly gone and so are the riches, but the colorful and often grim history remains.

The book's protagonist, Morrie Morgan, is back for a third outing. Doig fans first met Morrie in The Whistling Season (2005), when he arrived from Chicago with a murky past and quickly hijacked the book from its young narrator. He resurfaced in Work Song (2010), finding himself at odds with the tyrannical Anaconda Copper Mining Co.

Anaconda is again the villain here. But, as a ruthless exploiter of men and mineral wealth, the company has plenty of villainy to go around. Morrie still carries his brass knuckles, but this time he does battle with his typewriter and his command of the classics. Against his better judgment, he takes a job writing editorials for the Butte Thunder, a union newspaper formed to counter the iron rule of Anaconda. In response, the copper giant brings in its own word-slinger from Chicago.

Writing under pseudonyms, the two men trade insults, irony, sarcasm and bombast of the sort you see these days only in blogs. It's a nice reminder that modern journalism's mantra of total objectivity was fairly recent, and, as we see now, fairly short-lived. Hard as it is to imagine a time when local newspapers took a stand on anything besides careful study of the issues, Doig creates a believable battle of wits between the cynical bully and the idealistic underdog. I can tell he had a good time writing the excerpts of the competing editorials.

click to enlarge Sweet Thunder - Ivan Doig - Hardcover, Riverhead - 320 pages, $27.95
  • Sweet ThunderIvan DoigHardcover, Riverhead320 pages, $27.95

This war between newspapers, at a time when newspapers mattered, forms the most interesting part of the book. While Anaconda owned all of Montana's major newspapers until 1960 and in reality faced no significant rival, it's fun to imagine a paper like the Thunder "afflicting the comfortable" when the soulless suits of the Anaconda Mining Company most needed it.

It would also be fun to imagine a more tangible figure to personify the company's worst misdeeds. But except for its somewhat two-dimensional editorialist, the company remains mostly faceless. That's the way soulless suits are, I guess. Still, a good book needs a good antagonist, and Sweet Thunder doesn't really have one convincing enough to carry the tale. When the denouement comes, it's as expected—and so easy you wonder what all the fuss was about.

Anaconda isn't Morrie's only problem, of course. Even though he's writing under a pseudonym, his new occupation has slightly too high a profile, one that might jeopardize his efforts to outrun a checkered past.

First, the shadowy Chicago mob would still like to get its hands on him for his profiting handsomely on a fixed fight and, later, a fixed World Series involving the Chicago White Sox. Perhaps you've heard of it. If that's not enough, Morrie discovers that he is a dead-ringer for the dangerous bootlegger known as the Highliner, and he fears the complications that are sure to ensue. Finally, his new bride, Grace, is largely clueless about his shady past—and she isn't the sort of woman who will stick with a liar.

These are all interesting enough side stories. But in none of them does a real sense of tension or jeopardy ever emerge.

Sorry, Ivan. I know: It's me, not you. For me, it has come down to a matter of trust. With writers like Joyce Carol Oates or Cormac McCarthy, for example, I have learned to trust that the worst can happen and probably will. With this series by Doig, I have learned to trust that everything will always work out fine, no matter the complications.

It's a sweet worldview, and maybe even a realistic one most of the time. In Sweet Thunder, it does make for pleasant reading. But it doesn't make for truly memorable fiction.

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