Annie Proulx's vigorous, quirky novel "The Shipping News," set in present-day Newfoundland, there are indeed a lot of drownings. The main characters are plagued by dangerous undercurrents, both in the physical world and in their own minds.
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But the local color, ribaldry and uncanny sorts of redemption of Ms. Proulx's third book of fiction keep the reader from slipping under, into the murk of loss. The novel, largely set in the village of Killick-Claw, along Newfoundland's foggy, storm-battered coast, displays Ms. Proulx's surreal humor and her zest for the strange foibles of humanity. The protagonist is Quoyle, who almost drowns once.
Then six kinked years of suffering. When Petal is killed with a lover in a car wreck, one of Quoyle's first acts of mourning is to stick his head into the sudden cold weather of the refrigerator to cry. Soon Bunny is plagued with nightmares of a snarling white dog that match in intensity her father's hallucinatory re-enactments of Petal's grisly death. Life seems stripped of hope until Quoyle's Aunt Agnis Hamm arrives.
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The aunt, as she is often referred to, regales Quoyle with stories of their Newfoundland ancestors; at once mesmerizing and disquieting, they draw Quoyle in, albeit with some hesitation. The mysteries of unknown family. Quoyle sets out for Newfoundland to find the ancestral house.
Once there, Quoyle, his aunt and daughters find the dilapidated place, isolated miles down a barely passable road from Killick-Claw, where Quoyle eventually finds work on The Gammy Bird, the local news paper. Happily for the reader, Ms. Proulx keeps returning to the offices of The Gammy Bird.
As Quoyle's gypsy family moves from house to trailer, the office becomes his home base. There he meets the staff, true brigands of outback journalism. It is also where the pitch of Ms. Proulx's writing is most finely tuned.
There are, among others, Nutbeem, who steals foreign news from the radio; Tert Card, an estimable rewrite man; and Jack Buggit, the belligerent editor. Their spontaneous monologues, when spiced with the local patois, are wonderfully performed riffs of nostalgia, anecdote, indictment and complaint that strike us as Newfoundland's most rollicking oral literature.
The Gammy Bird specializes in sexual-abuse stories, and we get a file of them a mile high. Quoyle is assigned two beats. There is shipping news: a ship's home port, time of arrival, time of departure, cargo, occasionally the antics of captain and crew.
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In a region of chronic unemployment, just to have these facts of commerce reported seems a kind of optimism. Proulx's Killick-Claw is barely hanging on to the second half of the century. Far more disturbing is Quoyle's other beat. As it is put to him by Jack Buggit: "We run a front-page photo of a car wreck every week, whether we have a wreck or not. That's our golden rule. No exceptions.
Nutbeem observes: "Have you noticed Jack's uncanny sense about assignments? He gives you a beat that plays on your private inner fears.
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Look at you. Your wife was killed in an auto accident.
What does Jack ask you to cover? Car wrecks, to get pictures while the upholstery is still on fire and the blood still hot. He gives Billy, who has never married for reasons unknown, the home news, the women's interest page, the details of home and hearth -- must be exquisitely painful to the old man.
And me. I get to cover the wretched sexual assaults. And with each one I relive my own childhood.
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I was assaulted at school for three years, first by a miserable geometry teacher, then by older boys who were his cronies. To this day I cannot sleep without wrapping up like a mummy in five or six blankets. And what I don't know is if Jack understands what he's doing, if the pain is supposed to ease and dull through repetitive confrontation, or if it just persists, as fresh as on the day of the first personal event.
I'd say it persists.
Claustrophobic winter arrives, locking in Killick-Claw, icing over the coves. As the harsh months go by, it seems that Quoyle is digging out from his own past.
He deals compassionately with the last of his disreputable clan, a demented old cousin living in a hut "crammed with the poverty of another century," by securing him in a rest home. Still fending off visions of Petal, he begins to court the all but silent Wavey Prowse, herself widowed by a drowning.
He gets his children ensconced in school and deepens his knowledge and delight as a father. He seems for the first time calm in his heart.
The children and aunt undergo difficult, healing transformations as well. Our sympathies are strongly invested in all of them, as well as in the village itself.
The Shipping News
Throughout "The Shipping News," the sinuousness of E. Annie Proulx's prose seems to correspond physically with the textures of the weather and sea.
Her inventive language is finely, if exhaustively, accomplished.
If I have any complaint it is that at times she carries her own brand of poetic compression too far: "Billy's worn shape down to the bones, cast Quoyle as a sliding mass. Near the novel's end, Jack Buggit sits up in his own coffin, spouting water, having both drowned and not drowned; it is a forced invention in a novel otherwise replete with wonderfully natural ones.
Proulx is never too showy with her research, though "The Shipping News" is almost an encyclopedia of slang and lore. The way her Newfoundlanders talk, the most factual account seems as high-spirited as gossip over a supper of snow crab, cod cheeks, lobster salad and seal-flipper stew.
Eventually, the actual house of Quoyle is blown into the sea, a drowned house. Yet by spring's open water, Quoyle himself has not only survived but also drummed out some of his demons. In the end, it seems triumph enough that neither Quoyle nor Wavey has drowned. Return to the Books Home Page. Annie Proulx.