With this latest novel, Ivan Doig completes his McCaskill trilogy, begun in 1984 with English Creek and followed in 1987 with Dancing at the Rascal Fair. Ride With Me, Mariah Montana is good Doig, and that means readers can expect crisp dialogue, rapid pace, vital language, and many satisfied- hours with this handsome volume from Atheneum.

But Ivan Doig has always offered readers more than just a smooth story; he’ challenges both his readers and himself with his effort to pull together language, people, space, and time. That effort continues in Mariah Montana, producing the book’s particular fascination but, at the same time, creating problems that ultimately make this particular novel less satisfying than earlier offerings.

Mariah Montana is Jick McCaskill’s first-person account of his travels with his daughter Mariah (nicknamed Mariah Montana by her college classmates), a photographer for the Missoula Montanian, and her ex-husband Riley Wright, a journalist for the same newspaper. As the state gears up for its centennial, Mariah and Riley are out after the unique, the essential Montana. Jick, now 65 years old, is along for the ride and to keep peace between the former lovers. If one plays through that brief outline, the challenge and pleasure of the book becomes clear: a world coming apart that wants desperately to put itself back together.

In 1989 Montana is no longer the 1930’s environment readers were introduced to when they first met Jick in English Creek. Ranchers are being swallowed by big business. Fax machines, motor homes, and microwave ovens have become standard fare for the generation of Mariah and Riley. So Jick is more than just along for the ride; he is trying to understand the demise of the Noon Creek ranch, the death of his wife Marcella, and the broken marriage of his beloved Mariah. While Jick works with his problems, the visually oriented Mariah and the verbal Riley try to unify their distinctively different talents in capturing a sequence of Montanas. The effort to pool their skills, see both the unity and diversity of the state, and once again unify their lives in a second attempt at marriage is the struggle for visual/ verbal, female/male union. “Enumerating is one thing and making it all add up is a hell of another.”

Mariah Montana is good, but it would be a mistake to imply, as the dustjacket does, that this is Doig at his best. So much is being attempted in this latest work that the complexity frequently gets in the way of characterization and story. With the narration given to Jick, the old man is continually reminded of previous scenes and earlier individuals out of his life, and the reader is continually reminded that this book concludes a trilogy. Instead, for example, of developing Mariah, Jick gives us some information on Mariah and on his remembered wife Marcella, but Marcella is a woman the reader has never met and never does meet.

Like the individual episodes that will perhaps comprise the essential Montana, the pieces that comprise Mariah and Marcella—or Riley or Jick—have to struggle for integrated life. In order to make this book really work, we must feel Jick’s pain at the loss of his wife, daughter, and ranch, but we have never met the wife, never seen Jick as a rancher, and are always seeing Mariah in relation to that absent wife. The struggle for Jick and for the two journalists is to bring pieces together; the struggle for the reader is similar. Unless we are convinced about Jick’s pain at the loss of Marcella or his tears at the discovery of letters revealing Angus McCaskill’s hopeless love, the scenes simply won’t carry the kind of power similar scenes do in English Creek and Dancing at the Rascal Fair. As Mariah and Riley discover, wanting to see Montana or the past is not enough if the disjunction of eye and word predominates.

For those of us who like Ivan Doig’s work. Ride With Me, Mariah Montana poses intriguing possibilities. It is a narrative whose focus is “home”; it concludes a trilogy whose focus is “home.” And by its very nature, a trilogy itself provides a “home” for both author and reader. Setting out to do a trilogy, a writer establishes a stable base within which he can remain for the years he spends with the trilogy. Readers familiar with This House of Sky know that “home” has always been central to Doig’s work. In its very stability and comfort, however, “home” can become a threat to maturation and growth. With Mariah Montana, the trilogy ends, the Noon Creek ranch is no longer the home of the McCaskills, and the narrator departs in a motor home. In the opening pages, Mariah tells Jick that all he wants to do is “mope off home to the ranch and vegetate.” That threat seems to be voided as Jick goes out with Riley’s mother at the end, but whether that departure is promise of growth or retreat to the long desired golden girl remains an open question.

It has problems, but Ride With Me, Mariah Montana is a rich conclusion to the McCaskill trilogy and an integral part of the evolving Doig narrative. As Jick tells Mariah, “it’s time to make loss into change.”


[Ride With Me, Mariah Montana, by Ivan Doig (New York: Atheneum) 329 pp., $18.95]