'The Eleventh Man' by Ivan Doig

War is hell, but there's always Montana

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The current bard of the wide, open spaces, Ivan Doig has built a solid following with his steady, straightforward fiction about the "real America," the mythical land that Sarah Palin locates somewhere in the sticks.

Doig hails from that vast emptiness along the Canadian border called Montana, where men are expected to be men, and as for the ladies, "Montana men did not believe that a woman's grasp in life included the steering wheel" of a car.

   
"THE ELEVENTH MAN"

By Ivan Doig
Harcourt ($26)

   

With all that Blue Sky Country canvas around him, the novelist limited his previous works to the lives of a few hardy folk, earning himself the endearing tag of "storyteller." Yet, he always seemed to be using a small artist's brush to paint on a small corner of that big blue blank.

He's become more ambitious in his new one, taking on World War II as his backdrop, but he insists on using that little brush rather than taking a broad sweep. The result is a story confined to his Montana as the war flashes by like a newsreel.

It's an intriguing setup: Ben Reinking, member of the undefeated 1941 Treasure State University football team, the "Supreme Team," is fighting as a propagandist for the War Department.

His assignment is to bat out inspiring patriotic stories about the other 10 starters who are in various battle stations around the world as he works for something called the Threshold Press War Project. To move things along, three are already dead at the book's start.

While this structure gives Doig permission to send Reinking globe-trotting, the author continually returns him to Montana, where there's an air base used to ferry American-made planes to the Soviet Union, flown largely by the Women's Air Force Service.

Ben himself takes frequent flights in bed with pilot Cass Standish, whose husband is stationed in the Pacific, before shipping out to chronicle another tragedy.

Doig seems to have most of his research watching Hollywood war films, picking up that "gee-whiz" dialog that only Ronald Reagan made believable and giving us average-Joe characters straight out of Warner Bros. central casting.

With his adulterous ways and willingness to sell out the truth for the war effort, Ben remains a half-formed hero whose emotions and purpose are muted. There's no vividness to Doig's hero, or the rest of his characters.

The storyteller takes precedence here, and Doig crafts a clutch of fine descriptive passages, but overall, the novel feels artificial, imitative and forced.


Contact book editor Bob Hoover at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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