Mountain Time feels like literary Muzak, the prose equivalent of a drive through the high country when the colors are changing. There may not be any enduring significance to the passage of time spent within its leaves, but it sure is an enjoyable ride.
The featured characters in Mountain Time are Mitch Rozier, a 50-year-old environmental writer for an alternative weekly newspaper in Seattle; his lover Lexa McCaskill, a 40-year-old caterer and former wilderness-expedition cook; his father Lyle, a 75-year-old rock farmer still looking for a way to make an easy buck in Montana; and Lexa's sister Mariah, a photojournalist just returning from a year spent traveling and shooting all over the world.
And then there is the title character. The mountain. The forests. The Bob Marshall Wilderness. Despite wrapping readers in the conflicts between father and son, between sisters and between lovers, Mountain Time is never far from its most engaging through line, a love story between Ivan Doig and the American West.
Doig wastes no time acknowledging the footsteps of the environmentalists both he and his main character follow, introducing a scene with Mitch stuck on a story while the ghosts who preceded him look over his shoulder. "Ed Abbey smoldering in his grave in the slickrock desert, Stegner magisterially whopping the nail on the head in every sentence of his hallowed 'wilderness letter.' Feverish Bob Marshall, the Thomas Wolfe of the Forest Service, writing and hiking himself to death in the mountains he so adored, his epitaph theirs: 'How much wilderness do we need? How many Brahms symphonies do we need?' And back beyond them the sweet ponds of Thoreauvia. The whispering pines of Muirland. St. feathered Francis, if you really want to go back."
Mitch was shaped by his coming of age in the '60s, when "you could stand out here with grass tickling your toes and holy smoke up your nose and feel giddy and perfectly sane at the same time," and he maintains a tenuous grasp on his hipness. At times, the dialogue gets a little over-flip, and Doig borders on indulgence in his apparent infatuation with avant-pop referentialsim. But perhaps it's inevitable that characters based in Seattle would find themselves entwined in cyberspeak. When Mitch serves a micro-beer to a "physically supreme specimen ... blonde and tawny," he sees her as "Sheena@jungle.com."
Doig's love of language emerges in an early scene capturing Mitch in one of his bi-annual visits with his grown daughter, this time on rollerblades: "Several hundred, Friday-nighted to their pierced eyebrows and gaudy fingernails, already had congregated beneath the building's clock tower and were milling around in various states of balance. ... Tourists in rental cars wildly pulled over at the sight of this meteor shower of get-ups, the closets of San Francisco airborne on low-flying naiads and masquers, leftover Wavy Gravys and incipient Courtney Loves, seasoned exhibitionists and heart-in-throat first-timers alike borne on boots speedy as midget locomotives."
Doig outlines a spectrum reaching from Mitch, who cut his journalistic teeth on the eruption of Mount St. Helens and met Lexa while covering the Exxon Valdez, to Lyle, whose latest plan is to sell his ranch for the rock to pave the wilderness. Lyle is both the product and progenitor of his environment. "The benchland at the edge of his father's town of Twin Sulphur Springs was as speckled as a pinto pigeon egg: every dot a rock, or a clump of them."
Lyle's latest scheme prompts a trip to Montana for Mitch, who is soon followed by Lexa and Mariah, eager for some "mountain time." While characters fumble about blindly, readers benefit from our omniscient insight into time long-passed and our instinctive understanding of an unnamed character, more shadow than substance, blazing through the pristine Montana backcountry, carving wilderness in his wake. Doig reveals the CCC camps of the '30s, the bogged-down jungle of New Guinea in World War II and the rites of passage of the '60s, all from the steady anchor of the present.
His characters face the implausible task of reinventing themselves before their legacy is etched in the stone of endless benches of rocks, and there's a certain satisfaction in seeing beyond the realism of their suffering. Doig's tidy closure leaves a few inexplicable gaps in the inherent logic of his characters. The novel's final chords are left to bounce around the reader's mind like one last elevator soundtrack echoing unleashed in the hum-along unconscious.