Ivan Doig's 'Mountain Time' -- relationships and redemption

August 01, 1999|By Harry Merritt | Harry Merritt,SUN STAFF

"Mountain Time," by Ivan Doig. Scribner. 352 pages. $25.

For years, Ivan Doig has been acclaimed as one of the leading writers of the American West, praised for a memoir called "This House of Sky" and assorted lyrical and poignant novels set in Montana.

Having just read Doig's latest work of fiction, "Mountain Time," it's a little tough to see what the fuss was about.

Despite some clever and graceful writing -- some marvelous passages, really -- "Mountain Time" is a disappointment; the whole of it doesn't add up to very much. Still, it's worth paying attention to, for the rewards it delivers in its final chapters, and for the flashes, throughout, of Doig's considerable talent.

"Mountain Time" is all about relationships -- between father and son, the son and his children, the son and his girlfriend, the girlfriend and her sister -- and the frustrations and lies that are so much a part of those relationships.

The son, the book's central character, is Mitch Rozier, a sometime college football player who writes about environmental issues for Cascopia, a City Paper-like weekly in Seattle. Mitch is middle-aged and divorced, with two adult children he seldom sees or has much contact with.

He also doesn't have much contact with his own father back home in Twin Sulphur Springs, Mont.: Lyle Rozier, a cranky and difficult retired rancher whose yard is strewn with rusted, decrepit farm machinery and whose latest get-rich-quick scheme is to sell cattle brands to the yuppies who are buying ranchland nearby and raising llamas.

Mitch's longtime girlfriend, Lexa McCaskill, runs a catering business in Seattle. Lexa and Mitch met in Alaska, after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker accident caused unimaginable pollution in Prince William Sound. Lexa and her then-husband, Travis Mudd, were working on the cleanup; Mitch was there to write about it.

Lexa has a sister, Mariah, a globetrotting photographer with whom she has a friendly if competitive relationship. While Lexa's been arranging food for parties given by newly minted software moguls in Seattle, Mariah's been on New Zealand's South Island on assignment, cavorting, she says, with a much younger man.

Alas, the characters aren't as interesting as even these meager descriptions may suggest. Page after page, there is a lot of very literate talk, and not much cavorting, as the characters relate, or fail to relate, with one another. And there are various flashbacks -- to Mitch's boyhood, to Lyle's war service, to Lexa's girlhood -- that fill in helpful details. Through much of it, however, this reader was left hungry for some wonderful epiphany, some action or tension that would transform the book and make me care about these people.

Hope stirs for such a moment when Mitch at last departs New-Agey, good-coffee Seattle for wild and scenic Montana, the land Doig knows best.

Lyle, in his late 70s, says he needs Mitch to sign some papers about a pending sale of land. Really, though, Lyle is dying, of leukemia, a fact he is slow to reveal.

When Mitch learns the truth, he summons Lexa, who arrives at the home place with Mariah in tow. Mariah then decides that she must document, with photographs, Lyle's final days.

Only after Lyle dies, about 220 pages into the book, does "Mountain Time" awaken and start becoming the "story" Doig is so capable of telling.

It comes in the form of a dilemma: Mitch must decide whether he should honor his father's last wish, namely, to have his ashes scattered from a fire tower on Phantom Woman Mountain, in the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness, on the Continental Divide. Lyle, it turns out, worked there briefly as a Civilian Conservation Corps laborer when he was a teen-ager.

Mitch is surprised that his father wanted to be cremated -- and baffled by the Bob Marshall request. Lyle never showed the least interest in the place, or, for that matter, anything suggesting environmental protection.

To carry out the request, a reluctant and skeptical Mitch will have to trek more than two days through the wilderness, possibly encountering a grizzly or two en route. That presents all kinds of possibilities, not necessarily the ones the reader expects.

In the end, Mitch finds his own way to deal with the request -- with sudden, refreshing complications that reveal the central untruths of his father's life, and offer late redemption for readers of "Mountain Time" waiting for something, anything, to happen.

Harry Merritt, a Sun features editor, worked previously at the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, where he edited award-winning series, supervised political coverage and was the newspaper's writing coach.

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