Here's a book for ardent fans of big, strapping American novels told in muscled prose -- but not, perhaps, a book for the rest of us. Ivan Doig's fifth novel, like his earlier work, deals largely with man's struggle against nature -- in this case, the building of the monumental Fort Peck Dam (a WPA project) over the Missouri River in the 1930s. We're quickly introduced to a randy family of men called the Duffs and their "bridge widows" in the dam town of Wheeler, Montana. There's fillmaster Owen, the encumbered older brother, Darius, a Marxist uncle on the lam, a taxidancer named Proxy who could dance "the dimes out of the joes," and Rosellen, a struggling writer, to name but a few. Fort Peck Dam was a mix of engineering triumphs and big, dramatic mud slides, and so it is with the Duffs -- childbirth, familial love and strife, near-death experiences with fire and water, and a mysterious, lusty affair at the narrative's core.
The problem is that it's sometimes hard to tell these characters apart. Each uses expressions like "Christ in his nighty" and "fiddlesticks." This wouldn't be so bad except that they have similar, snappy responses, even in the height of crisis. This prose has a tendency to swagger, sometimes even donning cowboy boots as it struts its way into the Montana sunset. Early on, "Rosellen was having the chicken and dumplings, Kate the ham steak, and winter was having Fort Peck for supper." And sometimes Doig's writing stumbles or just plain falls down in those big boots: "She studied him like a skeptic buying wild honey in molasses country." Other times, Doig simply seems lazy: "Charlene was madder than a wet hen or any other comparison that could be drawn."
The really interesting story here concerns the construction of the dam and its impact on the Missouri River and the surrounding landscape. Doig is thorough. He knows his history and provides striking images of ancient buffalo skulls popping up in the dam water, the Duffs' Scottish ancestors lashing themselves to a ship to keep from falling into stormy waters, and FDR's sad, shriveled legs as he delivered his speech at Fort Peck. But ultimately, it's slow going. If you were a Duff, it might put you "in a mood a crocodile would have spat at."