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Bucking the Sun

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Bucking the Sun — a saga of Depression-era Montana set around the building of the Fort Peck Dam — derives its narrative energy from as tangled a web of familial and psychosexual rivalries as one is apt to encounter this side of Hamlet or The Brothers Karamazov. In the opening scene, the drowned, naked bodies of a man and woman are pulled from the cab of a truck that rolled into a river while they were making love. Both named Duff, they’re married, as the country song goes, ”only not to each other.” So which of the 10 Duffs portrayed in the novel — a father, his brother, his three married sons, and their respective wives — are they? Ivan Doig attempts to sustain the mystery through a sprawling, digressive tale filled with flashbacks, flash-forwards, and enough engineering data about the construction of earth-fill dams to glaze over the eyes of a civil engineer. At his extraordinary best, he might have brought it off. Not here, though. For all its complex structure and epic ambition, Bucking the Sun fails to deliver characters that readers are likely to care about or believe in. B