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
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,
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
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.