Dancing at the Rascal Fair
Henry David Thoreau once remarked that mythology precedes poetry, and between them must lie a long enough stretch of history to challenge the fixed forms of the mythological with the flux of particulars. The American West has its fossilized and formulaic mythology, the stuff of countless films and pulp novels that have produced a strange kind of poetry, and it has been Ivan Doig’s purpose to bring a new vision to challenge it, both in his novels and in such nonfictional works as This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind (1978). Doig, who has a doctorate in history, emphasizes the complex reality of the West: The region is more than a cultural vacuum into which can be placed the good-versus-evil fantasies that have come to take on a kind of specious reality because of their sheer number.
Dancing at the Rascal Fair, the second novel of a projected trilogy about the McCaskill family and the Two Medicine region of Eastern Slope Montana—note that within the saga’s chronology, this story comes before English Creek (1984)—is above all an attempt to create an intensely particular historical account of the early homestead era there and to elicit a complex and poetic reality from those particulars. The narrative gives a lively catalog of event fact, and expression, of the kind that only the most intimate knowledge of a place can provide: a failed summer’s hay crop (“I could cover the width of each windrow with my hat”), an argument at poker (“Goddamn you and the horse you rode in on”), the idea of national forests (“lines of logic laid upon the earth”).
Dancing at the Rascal Fair is also (and this is not at all usual for novels of the American West) informed by an intensely ironic vision of life. Despite the conviviality of Doig’s first-person narrator Angus McCaskill, and despite the fact that Doig shares some of his narrator’s biases, there is no single authoritative spokesperson in this novel. Doig plays with the stock elements of Western fiction—sheepmen versus cattlemen, government versus the individual, man versus nature—but he employs them to his own ends: His cast of characters includes not a single outlaw, and his invented scenes show not a single gun pointed in anger from one man to another. The struggles and violence are of a much subtler kind, and prove the characters to be not stereotypes but mixtures of the rational and passionate, of order and confusion.
Doig begins the novel not with Americans, and not in America. When Angus McCaskill and Rob Barclay walk down the quay toward their ship on the River Clyde, they react as Scotsmen, and the narrator approximates a Scottish brogue he will later lose:The Atlantic Ocean and the continent America all the way across to Montana stood as but the width of a cottage threshold, so far as [Rob] ever let on. No second guess, never a might-have-done-instead out of [him], none. . . . Man, man, what I would give to know.
Doig’s West is a land of immigrants whose seemingly mundane lives are a far cry from romantic stereotypes.
Doig departs from the conventional expectations of the Western in other ways as well. Fiction set in the West has seldom emphasized women and settled society, and even the most mature work in this area, such as Wallace Stegner’s novels Angle of Repose (1971) and The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), hews close to the traditional line of women wanting to settle down while men want to keep moving. Doig deviates from that line; he recognizes that the key social element is the presence of women, but one of the strengths of his novel is the variety of their portraiture: They are as likely as men to upset any status quo.
At the outset, women are present in Montana only as synecdoche: The teamster Herbert speaks of “the calico situation,” meaning in most cases the availability of prostitutes. The desolate architecture of Gros Ventre which Angus and Rob find when they arrive in the spring of 1890 is emblematic of the lack of true society there: Angus notes that the “raggle-taggle fringe of structures was the community entire.” Repeatedly, Doig undercuts images of the West that hide its harsh realities. The town’s favorite prostitute is a Slavic immigrant who has been dubbed Bouncing Betty: Her surname, Mraz, means “ice” in her native language.
As the narrative progresses, increasingly populated by women, one cannot help but notice that there is much coldness in the male-female relationships. Angus remembers his parents’ marriage as “locked in ice.” The novel’s safest marriage, that of Rob and Judith Barclay, is free of mutual passion, for as Uncle Lucas notes, Rob’s love is for himself. Angus’ lack of feeling for Rob’s sister Adair stands in sharp contrast to his futile and all-consuming passion for Anna Ramsay, and his marriage to Adair...
(The entire section is 1998 words.)