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Book Review: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

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Normally the "Acknowledgments" section of a novel is of little interest. "Thank you, dear editor" stuff and something for the judges who gave Ms. Proulx a Pulitzer. This time we learn that the introductions to the book and each chapter — not T.S. Eliot poems beginning with Greek poems in Greek — are from a 1944 book, The Ashley Book of Knots, which she "… had the good fortune to find at a yard sale for a quarter…" This book-find helped her with her "thread of an idea." Many of us built our own libraries on the thrift-store and library book sale. It is an indication of someone who loves both books and words – enough to follow their muse into the neverland of creating some.

These are wonderful little excerpts, the first of which is the definition of a "Quoyle: A coil of rope." Her protagonist is named Quoyle. He is "Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence… He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds…"

"At thirty-six, bereft, brimming with grief and thwarted love, Quoyle steered away to Newfoundland, the rock that had generated his ancestors … A watery place. And Quoyle feared water, could not swim … A great damp loaf of a body … Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back … Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face…"

It is hard to resist the description of this character who is to be our guide into the world of those who seek and those who hide from this world. Now we are delivered to this Newfoundland shore where few of us have been. It seems "foreign" and not just a cold version of Cape Cod. Icebergs happen by and the people farm the sea. These are hard-edged fisher-folk with the bite of the winter chill in them.

Underneath the ice and in the lee of the storms comes the story of Quoyle and his little girls (Bunny and Sunshine Quoyle), the memories of his much-beloved wife who was killed while leaving him. Our poor, love-starved Quoyle has only his memory of an unrequited love and a woman who ignored and belittled, had sold his daughters to bankroll her exit. This is his experience of love.

There is his aunt who is a constant surprise – to him as well as to us. There they are, the characters who make the fictional world come alive, the supporting actors. In the formula thriller/mystery they too adhere to the formula. Ms. Proulx gives us characters of character, human beings as it were.

There is the history he hadn't known, of this ancestry of pirate-types who had been known for staying isolated out on Quoyle's Point luring ships to ruin on the rocky shore, to salvage their treasures. And to their ruined house they go to become a family of sorts in a house their ancestors had dragged over the ice to lash tightly to the massive rock of Quoyle's Point when the other tough customers of the sea had expelled them.

Proulx winnows her way into lives that are not of the norm and lets us see the world through eyes that are not our own. These are simple souls with complicated lives and convoluted thoughts.

More importantly, Ms. Proulx serves up a fried bologna dish of wonderful strings of words and thoughts that lift us out of our language as well as our lives and give us a nudge into a world where words have knotted meanings and coiled relationships, where boats mean much and lobsters little, where death is as near as the icy sea and life needs to be found amid the knots and coils of a life's journey to the sea. Of Quoyle's journey back to life.

In some ways the story of Quoyle, who "…believed he was a newspaper reporter, yet read no paper except The Mockingburg Record, and so managed to ignore terrorism, climatological change, collapsing governments, chemical spills, plagues, recession and failing banks, floating debris, the disintegrating ozone layer … That was the stuff of others' lives. He was waiting for his to begin."

It begins to. The change is not rapid, not magical. It is life as people sometimes live it. Things happen. Plans are planned and something different comes along. Quoyle has somehow entered the “newspaper world” on his Mockingbird Record. His friend finds him the job on The Gammy Bird, a rag for these wind-swept people on the edge of the world. It sells advertising and fills its pages with sexual molestation “news” and car wrecks, the stories that sell tabloids on supermarket shelves.

“The paper was a forty-four page tab printed on a thin paper. Six columns, headlines modest, 36-point was a screamer, some stout but unfamiliar sans-serif type. A very small news hole and a staggering number of ads.”

Quoyle is given the car wreck beat that he can't bring himself to do. “Car wrecks! Stunned with the probabilities of blood and dying people.” Says the publisher, “And the shipping news. Get the list from the harbor master. What ships come into Killick-Claw, what ones goes out… See what you can do.”

Quoyle does. He writes the shipping news but finds stories of the ships of both wood and steel and the men who go out to the sea in ships. He slowly becomes a newspaperman, even if it is The Gammy Bird of Killick Claw. He adapts to the rock and the shore.

His news of shipping becomes popular. “Thirty-six years old and this was the first time anybody ever said he'd done it right.”

E. Annie Proulx does it right with words that sometimes bob up from the sea of narrative. That chapter where Quoyle has gotten it right ends with, “Fog against the window like milk.”

The Shipping News is not a recent book, from 1993. It was new to me, a find for not much more than a quarter at a book sale. Stop at that next church bazaar, Salvation Army store, the tables in front of the supermarket and Amazon sales. You could end up dreaming of Newfoundland or accordions.

Now I will watch the movie, Brokeback Mountain, from a Proulx novel or, better yet, read the book first, digest it – the real thing, and then watch the movie to see what someone else has seen in the words the writer made for the music and the pictures in her head. Her eclectic head for stories from different places and of different characters.

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  • Katie McNeill

    I found this book a few years ago myself at a used bookstore. Someone had left a newspaper clipping about knots for a bookmark which I saved with the book. I loved it. I was suprised that no one I knew had read it, most had seen the movie which is good, but the book (as always)is better. This is a great review of it.