For children, parents start as abstractions—they simply are. Then, they become objects of veneration. For a small child, a parent is akin to God. Adolescents, though, gradually learn that their parents may not actually be towers of strength. The dawning realization that one's parent has weaknesses and flaws, and may not even be a very good person, can be a painful process for someone transitioning out of childhood.
Such is the case with Rusty, the young narrator of The Bartender's Tale. When Rusty is six years old, his absent father snaps him up from the clutches of the indifferent aunt who had been his caretaker. In that moment, his father goes from being an unformed non-presence to something of a savior. Rusty finds himself growing up in 1960s Montana where his father, the titular bartender, runs the Medicine Lodge, a saloon that caters to the area's shepherds, rural folk so poor that they hock their boots and belt buckles to the bar so that they can keep drinking. Rusty's father takes frequent trips to Canada to sell the various valuables he acquires from his clientele of desperate drunks, and it soon becomes clear that his establishment is as much a pawn shop as it is a watering hole.
Given the setting and time period, I kept expecting The Bartender's Tale to lapse into sentimentality or mere nostalgia, but Doig is able to evoke boyhood in a bygone age by making that age seem lived-in rather than idealized. He's also able to effectively paint a picture of a man who makes a lot of his money off the alcoholism of others without having that portrayal descend into hand-wringing. By the end of the book, Rusty learns of his father's faults, but that doesn't make his father a villain—instead, he learns that his father (previously an abstraction, previously a savior) is human.
The Bartender's Tale has its share of contrivances and one-note characters. In particular, a nerdy historian character has a few eyeroll-inducing bits of dialogue. But I found myself speeding through it, eager to spend more time at the Medicine Lodge, more time with Rusty, and more time with Doig's easygoing prose.