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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Shipping News

Reviewed: January 23, 2004
By: Annie Proulx
Publisher: Scribner Paperback Fiction
364 pages, $10.99

The Shipping News is the story of Quoyle (thatís ďcoilĒ), whose name looks as disjointed and outsized as his frame and face are supposed to be. This would be why I canít actually see Kevin Spacey in the lead role of the movie any more after reading the book, but comments about casting and Hollywood probably belong in a different column.

Quoyle is a classic outsider, a man without a sense of purpose and few talents. The major asset which gains him the hand of Petal in marriage isnít enough to hold her at home once the two daughters are born, so itís no surprise that she skips out on him. What is a surprise is that she dies doing it, leaving the sometime reporter at loose ends.

Itís his aunt turning up that gives him a purpose and direction. Sheís bound for the Rock, returning to the Newfoundland shores that launched both her and his parents, even to the solitary house so precariously set upon the rock that it has to be anchored down with cables so it wonít blow away.

Thatís where she and Coil and the girls, Bunny and Sunshine, set up housekeeping after an epic journey up the east coast, full of long miles and longer delays. Itís Partridge, the newsman who taught him a little about actual writing, who manages to find him a possible berth in a small paper near the place where the aunt wants them to live. Thatís Quoyleís Point, named for a family with a bad, bad history, so bad that when they were run out of town they were made to take their house with them.

That wasnít too far from Flour Sack Cover, Nfld., where lay the offices of the Gammy Bird, a weekly managed by Tertius Card and owned by Mr. Jack Buggit, who was more at home fishing than in an office. Accidents and scandals are the Gammy Birdís stock in trade, that are the aforementioned Shipping News, to which beat Quoyle is assigned, or sentenced.

The Gammy Bird is staffed by an incredible collection of misfits and neíer do wells, each stranded there for reasons of his own, and each with a story to tell. In time we get to know them better and appreciate them more.

Quoyleís struggles with his profession are just a small part of this sprawling story. He has also to deal with his familyís past, finding out all the sordid details and working out where he fits within them. He has always felt cursed, but never knew the reason. He is a single parent raising, with the help of the aunt (Agnes, we learn eventually), two daughters, one of whom is a little strange herself.

Quoyle has trouble with the very basics of small town Newfoundland. He canít swim, but he buys a boat to get himself back and forth in the right weather. It leaks. He knows little carpentry, but he has this ramshackle two story box to contend with in all kinds of weather. He has trouble with people, and yet he has to meet them to be a reporter. As the book progresses he passes judgment on himself in headlines, his internal monologue spelling out in capital letters: Stupid Man Does Wrong Thing Once More.

The book is full of this sort of drama, passed to us in language which is full of quirks, fragments and odd turns of phrase that donít quite echo a storytelleríís voice, but donít feel like ordinary prose either. There are some sad moments in this story, and there are also a few of the funniest things Iíve read in quite some time, and most of those fairly beg to be read aloud and savoured.

I began this book with a bit of trepidation. The first chapter or two didnít seem like something I was going to enjoy. It got much better soon after and† I paid it the compliment of being sad to see it come to an end. By that time the only thing that puzzled me was her choice of a title. Almost every chapter begins with a quotation from The Ashley Book of Knots and, given the way the story goes, it was a surprise one of these oddly named fastenings didnít provide Proulx with a title.

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