By Ivan Doig
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Sweet Thunder by Ivan Doig is the third novel to feature Morris Morgan, prizefighter, newspaperman, and gambler. Set in Butte, Montana in 1920, the novel follows Morris and his wife Grace to the Montana mining town. An unexpected twist takes them away from their yearlong honeymoon traveling around the world. The twist involves Morris’s friend, Samuel Sandison, bequesting the couple his giant mansion. Unfortunately, since the Morgans now have to pay property taxes on this enormous manse, Morris has to find a job. He does so by meeting his former mining companion Jared Evans, Great War veteran, union organizer, and now senator. For years, Evans has worked tirelessly for better wages and working conditions for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. As electrification sweeps across the developing nation, Anaconda reaps the wealth, while miners work and die in unsafe conditions.
These circumstances lead Senator Evans to become a publisher of a newspaper, hiring on Morris as an editor. Morris is quite the wordsmith, evidenced through the novel’s first person narration. He’s quite a clever fellow, knowledgeable in Shakespeare, and a preternatural ability to quote Latin at odd intervals. Morris coins the paper’s name, The Thunder, after a Shakespeare quote, and works under a pen name, Pluvius, Latin for rain. As Pluvius, he does battle with the Post, Anaconda’s hand-puppet, and their homunculus by the pen name Scriptoris. Pluvius accuses Anaconda of exploiting the workers, Scriptoris fires back with allegations that unions will usher in a Soviet of Butte. (Not idle talk, since the action occurs only a few short years after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.) Later on, a former Wobblie dies in a suspicious mining accident, made more ambiguous since the Wobblie was known to carry around a flask. As Jared organizes a proposal for a tax commission that will call Anaconda’s financial exploitation into account, Morris survives an assassination attempt and is mistaken for the Highliner, the local bootlegger who bears an uncanny resemblance to Morris.
I wanted to like this novel, since it had many things that interested me. The brutal blood-spattered history of union organizing in the West, an inside look at newspaper operations, and life inside a Victorian-era mansion. Unfortunately, I found the novel to be good, but not great. These are the worst books to critique because of their averageness. Not excellent, but not terrible either. Put another way, Doig has a great Short Game, but fails the Long Game. In terms of the Short Game, Doig crams the novel with highly polished sentences and paints the Western landscape with a masterful eye. The Long Game falters with his characters and the plotting. Overall, the plot holds together, but is marred by a mistaken identity subplot that seems a little too convenient. The characters just rubbed me the wrong way. That’s an individual assessment and taste is a fickle mistress.
Morris and Grace came across as a realistic couple, albeit a bit too cutesy and sentimental. (Akin to “perfect couple” Lily and Marshall on How I Met Your Mother.) Morris’s first person narration reveals the novel to be clever, not smart. There’s a difference. By clever, I mean the turns of phrase, bon mots, and literary references come across as a bit too spot-on. Similarly, some people who dislike the writing of Joss Whedon or Aaron Sorkin could lay the same charge against them. Case in point: During a climactic scene, we learn that Morris is afraid of heights. This is how we learn about it:
“As if that were an omen, a hint of what the forces of nature could idly do, I was nearly halfway up the spider-spin of ladder when the spasm hit, clamping me to the rung I was on. Acro, from the Greek for “high above” or “topmost,” and phobia, which needs no definition other than “sheer fear.””
Seriously? My final pet peeve had to do with Anaconda Copper, ensconced in the top floor of the Hennessy Building. While Doig captures miners about their daily business, eating pasties, and frequenting speakeasies, the villains remain invisible. It would have been nice to actually see a board member doing something in Butte. Too bad they came across like invisible baddies akin to the Illuminati or Freemasons, secret and all-powerful in their lair.
Let me reiterate, despite these criticisms, Sweet Thunder isn’t a bad novel. Far from it. It is a good novel with some glaring flaws. While this is the first Ivan Doig novel I’ve read, I’ll concede that I may have read an errant dud. Doig has written many more books and perhaps I haven’t stumbled upon one that I would really appreciate. But for those seeking novels about unions in Western mining towns and hard-drinking newspapermen in the Roaring Twenties, this might be something to read.
Out of 10/7.9
And after much delay, my own book, On Being Human, will be released by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Jason Pettus, founder of CCLaP, has this to say about On Being Human:
And speaking of staffers and their monthly themed essay series turned into books, we’re just a week away from releasing our latest, Karl Wolff’s On Being Human. Regular readers will remember that the majority of this book’s contents ran monthly throughout 2012, when Karl looked at such diverse topics as Battlestar Galactica, Samuel Beckett and the “Warhammer 40,000” roleplaying game to really examine what artists over the decades have had to say about the human race and what defines it; for this book version we’ve included three brand-new essays that have never appeared at the blog before, plus of course with the entire thing gathered up into the bound sit-down-and-read-all-at-once edition that it’s been envisioned as from its start. This has been a long time coming — it was supposed to be out last January, but the aforementioned growing pains we’ve had this year have delayed it for this long — so we’re all especially glad to see this one finally getting out to the general public soon. As always, more information on the free ebook and handmade paper edition of On Being Human next week, when it’s been officially released. Thanks as always to all of you for your patience with our sometimes long delays this year, whether that’s referring to blog updates, book reviews or mailed orders, and I’m looking forward to CCLaP being a much more robust organization this fall and winter, that is cranking out its stuff with a lot more regularity than we have been recently.