It’s not a long respite Morrie Morgan receives in Ivan Doig’s novel reissued this week in paperback, Sweet Thunder. We find him on honeymoon with his wife Grace, living off the gains made betting on the 1919 World Series game—he “intuited” the White Sox would renege on Charles Comiskey—but by Chapter Two he’s back in Butte, Montana to assume ownership of a mansion. Soon after acceding ownership of the house, he also accedes a new job, at the request of his friend, union organizer and state senator (according to his calling card), Jared Evans. Morgan becomes the editorialist of the Thunder, a new newspaper aimed at diminishing the Anaconda Mining Company.
Morgan finds the job to be rewarding, sending missives like shots in a fusillade, loaded with Latin, indignation and invocations of Teddy Roosevelt. The tone of his editorials is staunch, yet breezy and almost jocular. He writes with a pseudonym: Pluvius, literally “bringer of rain,” the sobriquet of Jupiter, uttered entreatingly by the Romans when Rome was parched.
Butte, Morgan feels, is parched, thirsty for fairer treatment and better wages from the Anaconda currently coiled on the Richest Hill in the World. And it is with this in mind—the back of the book jacket calls the “Thunder” the David to the Goliath Anaconda—that Morgan engages in the fight, and witnesses a few casualties as well as “the gazetteer of risky occurrences.”
Ostensibly about the miners fighting to loosen Anaconda’s grip on Butte and the state of Montana, Sweet Thunder is also about early 20th-century journalism and the making of oneself. The thunder in the title comes from multiple sources. It’s the name of the paper, of course, recalled by Morgan from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It refers to the ire of the miners in Butte. It refers back to Morgan himself, as Pluvius.
But it also refers to a surprise that astonishes Morgan at the end of the novel, when he is presented with an announcement he deems a “thunderclap.” You’ll have to read the book and understand the kind of man Morrie Morgan is to appreciate this particular thunder, but it is an inspired connection, nonetheless.
Sweet Thunder is the third book of Doig’s to feature Morgan, who started as a schoolteacher in The Whistling Season out in Big Ditch and found his way to Butte in Work Song, where many of Thunder’s characters appeared. He is still quick-witted, rakish and perspicacious, ready with a quote and a joke. But he is also weary, paranoid that he is being tracked by “window men” sent on behalf of “the gambling mob in Chicago” and the Anaconda Mining Company. And he’s married now, saddled with the upkeep of a large mansion, which makes his job at the “Thunder” all the more dangerous, taking shots at the most important corporation in the Treasure State.
The book’s tone is tinged with familiarity—Morgan carries over the memories and experiences of Butte and its multitudinous personalities from the events of Work Song—and fans of the Morgan series will not be disappointed. And although this may prove a disadvantage to any reader who hasn’t picked up either Season or Work Song, Sweet Thunder offers enough incentive to the curious reader, perhaps even invites him/her to read it first.
Sweet Thunder also feels like a piece of history, full of recollections beyond the personal. The distance Morgan narrates the novel, discussing the Company and the 1919 World Series and Warren G Harding, among other things, suggests conscious authorship. Of course, Morgan comes across not only as a historian but also a bard, scribe, fount, jester and critic: a walking, dog-eared compendium. A pivot, shifting between talking about goons and quoting ebulliently from the annals of classic poetry. He is a joyous autodidact. He is the first secret to Sweet Thunder’s charm.
The second is journalism. Doig, who earned a B.A. and M.A. in journalism and freelanced, guides Morgan freely into that cigarette-fueled, ink-stained, green-visored milieu. And Morgan reciprocates with a passionate assessment of the profession:
“With its aroma of ink and paper and cigarette smoke and its staccato blurts of writing machines and jingling of telephones, the newsroom was a strangely exciting place where nothing definitive seemed to be happening, yet everything was. A newspaper is a daily miracle, a collective collaboration of wildly different authors cramped into columns of print that somehow digest into the closest thing to truth about humankind’s foibles and triumphs there is, i.e., the draft of history, and no day had yet come when I was not profoundly glad to do my part.”
Morgan illuminates much of Sweet Thunder with his words, but his loquacity on the page and among the characters sometimes comes across as too strong. When Morgan is shining brightest, the other characters, the setting, the story just can’t be seen in the glare, a bit of indulgence on the author’s part. Fortunately, Doig doesn’t indulge Morgan enough to blind the reader to the rest of the novel. He is not master to the circumstances of Sweet Thunder, which makes reading the novel all the more interesting.
You can find Sweet Thunder at your local bookstore; you can also order it from Amazon.com here.