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A Big Story Under the Big Sky : FICTION : BUCKING THE SUN, By Ivan Doig (Simon & Schuster: $23; 412 pp.)

May 12, 1996|Judith Freeman | Judith Freeman's most recent novel, "A Desert of Pure Feeling," has just been published by Pantheon Books

One of the strangest things about Ivan Doig's new novel, "Bucking the Sun," is also one of the first things one encounters upon opening the book--the epigraph. Doig dedicates his book "To novelists who deliver the eloquence of the edge of the world rather than stammers from the psychiatrist's bin" and goes on to list six writers--Roddy Doyle, Nadine Gordimer, Ismail Kadare, Thomas Keneally, Maurice Shadbolt and Tim Winton--as being among those who qualify for his odd encomium.

It is worth mentioning this because what Doig's novel lacks is precisely the thing he seems to admire in those to whom he has dedicated his work--namely a sense of an edge. This is a novel about the building of a dam, and the only real edge is the one created by millions of cubic feet of dirt piled up to capture the Missouri River.

"Bucking the Sun" (the title refers to working against the glare of sunrise or sunset) is a big historical novel, set in the 1930s in Montana. It tells the story of a contentious family named Duff whose farmland is taken as part of the construction of the massive Fort Peck dam. Bitter about their loss, the Duffs--like thousands of other Montanans--find jobs working on Fort Peck, a New Deal project that was the largest earth-fill dam ever attempted.

The story begins promisingly, rather like a murder mystery. A sheriff from the little town of Fort Peck is called to the scene of an accident. A truck containing the drowned bodies of a man and a woman has been pulled out of the lake created by the dam. The bodies are naked. They are identified as two members of the Duff clan. The only thing is, they are each married to someone else. What were they doing in that truck, naked, their clothing wadded into a bundle? And how did they end up in the lake?

The story moves backward in time from this point to four years earlier, when construction on the dam is just beginning. Not until the end of the book do we find out who died in that accident and why. In between we learn a good deal about the Duffs--the hard-drinking patriarch, Hugh, and his scrappy wife, Meg, and their three sons, Neil, Bruce and Owen (the only educated Duff, an engineer overseeing the construction of the dam).

One by one the Duff boys marry, and their stories of courtship, of settling down and of confronting dangers on the job form much of the narrative. When Uncle Darius arrives from Scotland and marries a local prostitute, he brings to the story a political sensibility as a socialist and saboteur who challenges the established order. These themes are all woven into the narrative--the theme of family members at odds with each other, of men struggling against the forces of nature, of politics that favor rich over poor and the New Deal policies that attempted to change that balance. All this is set against a backdrop of the harsh conditions in the economically depressed little shantytowns that sprang up almost overnight to house the workers.

Much of the drama comes from the strife within the Duff clan--the little jealousies and divisions, the resentments and betrayals. The Duffs are said to be "like nine radios going at once. Every Duff a different station." Yet it doesn't always feel that way to the reader. The writing occasionally levels their differences so that the sons, for instance, seem temporarily indistinguishable, as if only their names truly set them apart.

What Doig is so good at is capturing a sense of a certain period of Montana history and telling a big, whopping sort of story. As he has done in his previous novels, he creates a real feeling of the West and the often harsh, hardscrabble nature of existence. He gets the raw feeling of the bars and bordellos where sex is simply business. He knows the language of these people, with all the rich aphorisms ("sigh like a punctured philosopher," "tense as a cat at a fur show," "could dampen spirits at a funeral"). And he certainly invokes the awesomeness of the forces of nature against which the Fort Peck workers struggle. It has often been said that the story of the West is the story of water, and this is certainly one of those stories, told in great detail.

In the introduction to a new edition of his very moving 1978 memoir, "This House of Sky," the author talks about how, when he began the writing of that book, he already felt like "a relic"--the son and grandson of other relics, all of whom performed tasks and knew things that now seemed out of date. This, perhaps, helps explain why much of his later fiction is set in the past. It's a time he clearly appreciates, with values he quite possibly misses. But even historical novels need something that cannot be confined to relic-hood. And that is a feeling that a character's interior life is as worthy of investigation (and ultimately is as dramatic, if not more so) as external events.

Maybe it's asking too much, in a work that is so narrative-driven, to hope that an author will lift the curtain and let us peek behind it for a glimpse of the soul, no matter how tormented or sane. This is what is missing here. After all, we do not lead mythological lives but psychological ones and characters who speak from the depths, even if it means stammering at times, can nonetheless forge the way.

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