Tear Through the World in Wild Disguise

Ivan Doig was a Northwest legend. Before he died this past spring, the Seattle novelist had one last message to share.

By David Laskin July 30, 2015 Published in the August 2015 issue of Seattle Met

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I knew Ivan Doig as a writer before I knew him as a friend, and even though by the end I knew the friend as well as I have known anyone, the writer never ceased to loom over me. It was as if Twain or Cather had strolled off the page and shown up for dinner. Ivan was a character—that wiry frame, those blazing Scotch blue eyes, that Montana childhood too rough and sad to be invented—who liked to play the part of the ordinary guy. Unfull of himself with a vengeance. And yet, despite his modesty, it was impossible not to be aware that one of the greats was in our midst. 

A book of his, fittingly, occasioned our meeting. I had written a rave review of his 1996 novel, Bucking the Sun, a New Deal–era epic about the building of Montana’s Fort Peck Dam, and he responded with a typewritten thank you card remarking on the fact that we were neighbors. 

Still, friendship was slow to unfold. Our backgrounds were worlds apart—upland Montana Scot born between the Depression and World War II into the “lariat proletariat” (his phrase) versus New York Jew reared in a cushy baby-boom suburb. From what he’d written about his childhood—his mother’s sudden death from asthma on his sixth birthday, the awkward shuttle with his dad from bunkhouse to makeshift town dwelling, the steadying advent of his formidable grandmother—I expected a scrappy bantam with a sizable chip on his shoulder. 

What I didn’t expect was a twinkling charmer who knew everyone, had read everything, and graciously welcomed me as a comrade-in-arms. Ivan was shy and private—certain subjects would be forever off limits—but once you passed muster, he was irresistibly affable. 

“How about the four of us get some dinner together?” was the way the first invitation was issued. And in time, the four of us—his wife Carol, a journalist and writing teacher, my wife Kate, a law professor, Ivan, and I—became close. I knew we had breached some barrier of intimacy when, after a couple drinks, he began to cuss. Ivan had gone to Northwestern University on a full ride to study journalism and he had a PhD in history from the University of Washington—but he never lost the twang and jab of the bunkhouse. He collected (and sometimes coined) regional slang, the saltier the better—snirt (mixed snow and dirt), flabble (“a squabble accelerating into a fistfight”), turster (tourist), jackknife face, six ways from Sunday. It tickled him to no end that 67 entries in the Dictionary of American Regional English were attributed to him “either as progenitor or gatherer.” 

“How you say things really counts,” he told an interviewer once. “Counts to the soul.” Getting it right on the page was the first tenet of his credo. Ivan once told me that every sentence should have a knot tied into it somewhere—an unexpected twist that stopped you in your tracks—and he certainly practiced what he preached. 

“The town of Gros Ventre was so far from anywhere that you had to take a bus to catch the bus.” 

“My choice was wide open now…heart against conscience, if it is ever that evenly divided.” 

These sentences, lifted more or less at random from the start and the end of his final novel, reveal just how finely those knots got tied. Ivan never took the easy way. 

Though he returned again and again in fiction and memoir to the “big booming distances” of his Montana childhood, he had not the slightest desire to go back and live there again. The son of a ranch foreman, he bought a gorgeous light-bedazzled house overlooking Puget Sound on the earnings of his wits alone. Way cool, as he incongruously liked to say.

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Sweet Thunder 
Ivan Doig with his wife Carol 

Photo courtesy Carol Doig

Ivan had a highly developed professional code of conduct—hard-won, unerring—and he hammered it into me as the occasion demanded. Get your facts right, even when writing fiction. Always meet your deadlines. And don’t, for god’s sake, murder all your darlings.

I can’t remember how and when our literary camaraderie and sporadic dinners ripened into true and deep friendship, but I know Ivan was the one who made it happen. Barriers remained (Goddammit man, you’re in midcareer, he barked when I told him I was having an existential crisis about the meaning of my work), but our hearts opened to each other. He was not a gusher or a hugger. We never broached sex or romance (except once when he told me that Carol was his first and only love). Intimate confession was verboten; no shoulder was ever cried on. But I knew Ivan was there for me unconditionally, and he knew the same went for me. 

We even traveled together successfully on a couple of occasions. A decade or so ago, we were both invited to speak at the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Nebraska. Ivan turned out for his gig in full Western regalia—10-gallon hat, blue jean jacket, hand-tooled boots—and I twitted him a little over the getup. “It’s a performance, man,” he told me breezily, and then he floored me with the script he planned to read from. It looked like a musical score—just a couple of sentences a page with notations for crescendo, diminuendo, pregnant pause, heart-to-heart revelation, punch line. It was all an act—and yet it was utterly authentic, a pure distillation of his persona. I sat in the audience with chills running up and down my spine.

Only a few of us were told about the multiple myeloma—a type of a cancer that affects the plasma, causing cancerous cells to multiply and crowd out healthy cells in the bone marrow. “I don’t want this getting out,” Ivan decreed, though he was always willing, eager even to talk to me about it. Year after year came encouraging dispatches—blood cell count stable, treatment regimens working, new drugs more effective than the old. He wrote, he traveled, he downed his bourbons before dinner, he planted his vegetables, he walked in the morning with Carol. 

Then last October came the debilitating back pain. “It’s the drugs,” he told me. “All those treatments have hollowed out my bones.” It was impossible for him to lie down, and he started sleeping propped up in a chair. He had to use a cane. He seemed to lose two inches in a week. Juggling painkillers and chemo, he went from doctor to doctor. Nothing seemed to help. But still the feisty optimism remained. One day in January I got a triumphant call: the back pain was totally gone after a procedure in which they pumped something like cement into his spine. “By god, I feel like myself again,” he told me. 

That was the last good news. Within days a worse agony was upon him. The cancer had spread to his ribs.

You can have multiple myeloma for years without symptoms—smoldering myeloma—and you can manage it for five, seven, even 10 years through a variety of treatments. But at some point, it goes rampant. You become anemic. Your bones thin and develop lesions. You are increasingly susceptible to infection. Your kidneys begin to fail. 

All of this described Ivan’s condition to a tee.

There is no cure. 

I wanted to have the talk before it was too late—the talk I had never had with my father—but I couldn’t summon the courage. What if I piss him off? What if he thinks I’m treating him like a goner? In the event one gray spring morning, I showed up at the house and just jumped in feet first. I told him that his endorsement of my work meant the world to me. I told him how much I admired him, as a writer, as a person, as a friend. I began to sweat and a pit opened in the bottom of my stomach, but it was too late to stop now. We locked eyes—his were blue flames, fire and ice at the same time, blinding, unreadable. I told him that in many ways I felt closer to him than I had been to my own father.

Our eyes remained locked even after I stopped talking. Ivan, clearly embarrassed, stammered out a few conventional words about valuing my work, enjoying my company. But those blue eyes, immovable, said something else. 

The next time I saw him, maybe three days later, it was to help Carol move him into the car so she could drive him to the hospital. There was alarming swelling in his arms and legs, and the docs wanted to run some tests on his kidneys. I gingerly clutched an elbow as he slid his walker the few paces across the blond wood living room floor. The single step down to the garage was almost more than he could bear. Grimacing, he swung his ravaged frame into the back seat of the car. He was panting with pain as I leaned over to buckle his seat belt. 

Carol refused any further help. “It could be eight hours of sitting around while they run these tests,” she told me. “I’ll call if I need you.” 

Heart churning, I got in my car to drive the mile home. When I turned the ignition, Mozart’s Prague Symphony detonated like a bomb blast of joy. I tried to tell Kate what I had seen and ended in her arms choking on my tears. 

Five days later they sent him home: The cancer had compromised his kidneys and there was nothing more the doctors could do. Hospice care was arranged “to keep him comfortable”—that cruel euphemism, as if there could be any comfort in dying at the age of 75. 

Carol wanted me to be there when they arrived, but Ivan had refused visitors during the hospital stay and I was anxious about how he would react when he saw me. I was right to be anxious. I could tell by his expression that he was seething as the orderlies wheeled him from the ambulance to his luminous bedroom overlooking Puget Sound. 

After they got him settled, a nurse social worker sat beside the bed and launched into a battery of routine questions. Ivan was brusque but polite. When the nurse left, the mask dropped. 

“Okay, let’s deal Laskin in on this,” he growled at Carol. Then he turned to me.

He told me he had been convinced he was going to die overnight in the hospital when he learned that his kidneys were failing. This business of coming home, putting on a good face, lying in state while his friends shuffled past rankled the hell out of him. “I don’t want to be a hood ornament,” he said bitterly. 

I mumbled a few platitudes and edged for the door, but Ivan stopped me. “I’ve got a couple of things I want to give you. Come over here and roll up my sleeve.” The sinewy forearm was swollen and webbed with tiny scars—the residue of IV tubes, injections, blood samples. “You know you’re in trouble when your right arm looks like a fisherman’s tackle,” he said, with just a flicker of the old warmth. “You can have that—I’ll never use it. And there’s this. That cancer ward at Virginia Mason was so muffled and creepy I started to think of it as the Murmurous Ward. You can have that too.” 

It was clearly a relief for him, for all of us, to be back on the solid ground of wordsmithing. 

He was milder the next time I saw him. It was Easter, a surreally beautiful day with a full season of flowers in simultaneous bloom—lilacs, double ruffled cherries, tulips, apple trees, ceanothus. Maybe Ivan was being a hood ornament, propped up in bed for our pleasure. But I prefer to think the drugs had released him from the clutches of the demon. 

Before I left, I had an inspiration. “How about if I come back tomorrow to read to you? We could go over the book.” Two sets of page proofs of his new novel Last Bus to Wisdom were stacked in the corner. “I’ll read—you correct.”

The following afternoon, I was summoned. Ivan’s hands were shaking and his papery skin was stretched tight over his sunken cheeks, but the eyes were clear—more than clear. They shone like the eyes of a boy who has just found a casket of buried treasure in his backyard. He told me to find Crow Fair—a scene about halfway into the book in which his Huck Finn–like hero/narrator turns up at the powwow-cum-rodeo that the Crow Nation throws every year near Billings. By this point in the narrative, Ivan has snarled 11-year-old Donal Cameron in a heap of trouble. Accused of theft (not altogether wrongly) and hotly pursued through the fairgrounds by the tribal police, the boy narrator hatches a wild ruse to save his skin. He dons full Crow regalia—beaded harness, angora leggings, jingling anklets, feathered headdress—and attaches himself to a troupe of young native dancers. 

Despite the distinctly Doigian red hair and freckles, the slippery little punk gets away with it:

Caught up in the drum music and the hey-ya-ya-ya, but most of all in the moment where imagination became real, I danced as if my flashing beaded moccasins were on fire…. Possessed as I was, my moccasined feet knowing no boundaries and my high-pitched eagle shrieks of Nyih-nyih-nyih puncturing their chant, I spooked the other fancy-dancing kids away from me as I plain and simple outcrazied them. 

We worked through the proofs for the better part of two hours. Wheezing, dazed by pain medication, his left forearm hugely swollen, Ivan still had the wits and wherewithal to bite into every sentence. When we hit a rare infelicity, he stopped me and we batted around alternatives. 

Though he was visibly dying, he was working.

At one point Carol came into the room to check on us. Ivan halted the reading while he had her adjust the tilt of the bed.

“Come on, Ivan,” I said in mock petulance. “Was that really worth interrupting the flow of great literature?” 

He skipped a beat—and then he laughed. All three of us laughed. 

I went back the next day and picked up where we had left off, but Ivan was a different man. The eyes had dimmed and a metallic rattle echoed from his lungs with every exhale. There was no small talk or laughter. I spread his copy of the proofs out before him and started to read aloud from my copy. He struggled to keep his place. Once or twice, he tinkered with an overlong sentence. We snipped a couple of words, inserted some punctuation. He pushed on, but his heart wasn’t in it. 

When I left, I squeezed his shoulder, gently, mindful of the eggshell bones. I don’t remember what I said—but it wasn’t goodbye. 

Two days later, April 9, 2015, the phone rang before dawn. Carol was on the line to tell us that Ivan had died peacefully in the night.

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Photo courtesy Carol Doig

One evening, as I sat drinking, grieving, watching the light soften on another preternaturally balmy April day, it dawned on me why Ivan had asked me to read that particular passage. In a flash I saw the hidden message—the gift he had left for me to find. In young Donal’s ecstatic dance, Ivan captured the essence of what writers do. We tear through the world in wild disguise. We live by faking it. We make it up as we go along—and if we’re any good, if we’re anything like Ivan Doig, we fake it so dazzlingly that the imitation becomes better than the original. Possessed, knowing no boundaries, we “find the moment where imagination became real.” In a word, in Ivan’s word, we plain and simple outcrazy everyone else.

That was one gift. But he gave me two, just as he had after he forgave me for haunting him when they brought him home to die. The second gift was letting me stay. Ivan allowed me to watch a great man approach what Hamlet called “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” That in the final hours of consciousness he trained his blazing eyes on those page proofs was beyond inspiring. 

Ivan showed me what it meant to live on the page. He lives there still.

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