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Teammates in arms
Since the publication of his beautiful memoir of growing up in Montana, The House of Sky (1979), Ivan Doig has been hailed as a great Western writer. That reputation was burnished by the publication of his marvelous Montana trilogy, English Creek (1984), Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987) and Ride With Me, Mariah Montana (1990), which masterfully portrays the lives of four generations of the McCaskill family in Two Medicine country, Doig's lovingly invented landscape near the Rockies in Montana.
But like many ambitious writers who find their subjects and locales beyond the bright lights and big egos of the East Coast publishing world, Doig bristles just a bit at being pigeonholed as a Western writer.
"I find that's kind of an odd fence that's put around those of us who happen to live out here on this side of the Mississippi River," Doig says during a call to his home high on a bluff over Puget Sound, just north of downtown Seattle. "Writers of my generation are always described as writers of place. Maybe that's true as far as it goes. But what about the poetry under the prose? What about the fact that when readers raise their hands at book signings or readings, it's the characters and the language they tend to mention?" Doig says. "It seems to me the 'Western writer' tag shortchanges the pretty sophisticated literary effort that's gone on among my writing generation out here. It's going to be interesting to see after the publication of The Eleventh Man, am I still going to be a Western writer after taking these characters to Guam, New Guinea, Fairbanks, Alaska?"
Interesting indeed. The Eleventh Man, Doig's ninth novel and 12th book, is a panoramic page-turner about World War II as seen mostly through the eyes of Ben Reinking, a GI reporter assigned by the government's propaganda machine to write about the exploits of his former teammates, who comprised the starting lineup of the "Supreme Team," a championship Montana college football team that went undefeated in 1941.
"My imagination works best when it has a jumping off place of fact," Doig says, explaining the seed of his novel. "Somewhere in The Eleventh Man, the newspaper man Bill Reinking [Ben's father, an appealing small town newspaper publisher] says 'history writes the best yarns.' I thoroughly agree with that. Quite a number of years ago in the library of theMontana Historical Society in Helena I came across the half-lore and half-proven story of an entire Montana college football team that had gone into World War II, and the starting 11 had all perished in the war. The library is the greenhouse of the imagination for me. I suppose I tucked that away and my mind worked on it and at some point wondered, what if you were the 11th man while the war was taking its toll on all the others?"
The toll of war is widely and deeply felt in The Eleventh Man. As a war correspondent, Ben travels to every theater of World War II to write about the experiences of his former teammates, allowing Doig to work his magic over a much wider landscape than in his previous novels.
Some of that magic derives from the language Doig deploys in telling his tale. He has often used the phrase "poetry under the prose" to describe the effect he is looking for, by which he means "an interior rhyme or chime of language, something in a sentence which you hope will surprise and delight the reader, at least a little bit. I work at it also in the vernacular that my characters will talk, whether it's military, here in The Eleventh Man, or forest rangers in English Creek. I try to get a shimmer of how people will talk about their work or because they are in their work," Doig says. "I've often warmed up for the morning's work by reading 10 pages of the Dictionary of America Regional English, which is the great University of Wisconsin project to capture how people say things in various parts of this country."
Doig's cast of characters here is large and vivid. And although this a novel of war and football, his women characters—a Russian woman pilot ferrying bombers from Fairbanks to the Soviet Union, for example, or Cass Standish, an American flyer in the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) with whom Ben develops a complicated wartime romance—are among his most interesting characters.
"I sometimes take more pleasure in writing the female characters than male characters for some reason," Doig says. He adds: "I did have great good luck here. Everybody who saw this piece of writing before it emerged into galleys was a woman, starting with my wife Carol."
In fact, Doig and his wife have an unusually close working relationship. They came to Seattle together in 1966, when Doig entered a Ph.D. program in American history at the University of Washington. She has always been the first reader of his writing, his co-researcher and his research photographer. They sit across from one another at a trapezoidal desk they designed for the large converted family room where they work, looking out over Puget Sound from a bluff some 300 feet above the water. "We're both old newspaper people," Doig says. "In our newspaper and magazine past both of us shared space with people we didn't particularly choose to. You learn to have a cone of concentration over you. So it's never been an issue with Carol and me."
Turning reflective, Doig adds, "I've always seen writing as a profession. I have been, I suppose, kind of prickly proud about being a professional, all the way back to being a magazine freelancer here in Seattle, during and after graduate school. I spent much too long at that kind of life before This House of Sky took me out of it. But I came out of college and into journalism as what I saw as a serious wordsmith and a serious journalist. Producing language and story to the best of my ability has always been what I see that I'm up to."
With The Eleventh Man, Doig demonstrates once again that his ability remains deep and wide.
Alden Mudge writes from San Francisco.
This review refers to the hardcover edition.