The Eleventh Man
Ivan Doig
416 pages, hardcover: $26.
Harcourt, 2008.

In our collective memory, World War II happened "over there." But of course it also happened here  -- to soldiers' families, to women who went to work for the first time outside their homes, to the planters of victory gardens.

The war hit home particularly hard in Montana, which lost more than its fair share  -- its death rate was second only to New Mexico's, according to Ivan Doig. In his ninth novel, the celebrated Western writer brings that inequitable distribution of tragedy to life through Lieutenant Ben Reinking, who grew up along the Rocky Mountain Front  -- Doig's childhood home.

The son of a newspaperman and former captain of a legendary football team that went undefeated during the 1941 season, Reinking is pulled from fighter pilot training and assigned by the Threshold Press War Project, or "Teepee Weepy," to spend the war following his teammates, writing military propaganda about Montana's "Supreme Team" in combat.

One by one, Reinking's comrades fall, and he struggles with the guilt of having been handed a position of privilege. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a pilot who ferries airplanes to Canada  -- a married woman whose husband is fighting the Japanese in far-off jungles. Emotional entanglement ensues, in prose sometimes thick with romantic cliches:

"The two of them imbibed it all," writes Doig, "wanting to be nowhere else and in no other company. Why can't it be like this, they shared the thought without having to say so, on and on?"

The plot feels contrived, as the unseen powers behind Teepee Weepy yank Reinking around the globe without explanation. In shuttling among the war's theaters, Doig deprives himself of a signature strength: his deep roots in Montana's Two Medicine country, and his ability to evoke that place with integrity.

As in his other books, Doig, himself a self-described "relic," excels at recreating the past. Brief moments in history become fully textured and difficult to forget.

When the Marines invade Guam, Reinking is there to narrate for broadcast back home, describing the "terrible hail" of Japanese bullets bouncing off armored tanks, mortar shells exploding as soldiers slog shoreward, and the "dark blobs of bodies in the water." The scene, inspired by an actual recording made by Doig's friend, the late historian Alvin Josephy, is more powerful than any history lesson.

At 69, Doig still doesn't shy from love, nostalgia and the tension between fate and chance. In an age of endless irony, the venerable chronicler of the West's bygone eras remains a fearlessly earnest storyteller.