The Bartender's Tale is the story of a father and son left on their own in a shifting world — a tale in itself as old as kinship, but ever new in the way "the bachelor saloon keeper with a streak of frost in his black pompadour and the inquisitive 11-year-old boy who had been an accident between the sheets" go about life in the small Montana town of Gros Ventre in 1960.
Tom Harry, the nonpariel bartender and proprietor of the "nearly holy oasis," the Medicine Lodge, has a past he won't talk about and a habit of sudden disappearances for a few days, which plagues his impressionable son, Rusty, as does the unexplained absence of his mother ever since he was born. In their otherwise companionable bachelor life together, Rusty has free run of the saloon's fantastic back room. And in the momentous summer that is the heart of the novel, he shares this secret aperture into the often mystifying world of grownups with Zoe, the new girl down the street whose imagination outdoes even his own amid the wonders of the back of the saloon.
History, as it tends to do, arrives to these prime characters with gale force, first in the person of enthusiastic young oral historian Del Robertson and then in the shapely form of Proxy, an unforgettable taxi dancer in Tom's earlier fabled saloon in a Fort Peck dam boomtown. Proxy comes bearing life-changing news, of the sort that leaves Rusty and Zoe marveling at what grownups get themselves into.
The tale unfolds in Rusty's richly reminiscent voice, leading to the climax where a catastrophe delivers them all trials of conscience. In sum, this is a warmhearted yet consequential family saga in the spirited storytelling tradition of William Faulkner's The Reivers and Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales
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