In the late summer of 1996, I went for a week-long vacation to a lake
cabin in northern Minnesota. Before going, I bit the bullet and forced
myself to buy a few Pulitzer prize-winning novels that I'd been
procrastinating about reading. One of those was The Shipping News.
I'm a person who generally balks at having anything to do with
something that's supposed to be good for me. Imagine my groan when, on
a couch at the cabin, I opened the cover on it to see a whole list of
citations -- a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, an Irish Times
International Fiction Prize, a notable book of the year naming by The
New York Times and a Chicago Tribune Heartland Award. This book
was obviously something that a lot of somebodies
felt I should read.
Nonetheless, I'd set myself a task, so I squared my shoulders and, with
grim determination, started reading. One of the best decisions I ever
made, for I quickly found myself immersed in one of the best, most
engaging works of fiction I've ever read.
The protagonist of The Shipping News (for he could assuredly not be
called a "hero") is Quoyle, a big man with a huge chin who is an
established loser. Unappealing in appearance and uninspiring in
personality, Quoyle is pegged as a wretch from day one by everybody,
including his parents. At 36, he's a college dropout and a third-rate
newspaperman who is caught in an endless cycle of firing and rehiring,
forced to take demeaning temporary jobs at his editor's whim. He is
married to an unashamedly philandering woman who has borne him two
children she almost never sees, a heartless bawd who never misses work
but brings her boyfriends home to have sex with them in the living room
while Quoyle listens, silently weeping, in their bedroom. At the head
of Chapter One, Proulx defines "quoyle" as "a coil of rope," and
proceeds to quote The Ashley Book of Knots:
"A Flemish flake is a spiral coil of one layer only.
It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if
It it the perfect introduction to Quoyle; he is, in more familiar terms,
Quoyle's life is suddenly and forever changed by a rapid succession of
momentous events. His parents, both diagnosed with cancer, commit
suicide -- his father leaves a final announcement of the decision on
Quoyle's answering machine in his last conscious moments. Quoyle's
editor again informs him that he is fired, but that this time it is
likely permanent. His wife, after taking and selling their two girls,
dies in a car crash while running away to Florida with her latest
boyfriend. And Quoyle finally meets his Aunt Agnis, who convinces him
that the best thing would be to relocate to his family's ancestral home
in Newfoundland. An old (and only) friend of Quoyle's secures him a
job writing the shipping news for a paper there, and Quoyle packs up
his recovered daughters, his aunt and her dog, and leaves New York for
They arrive to find the ancestral home in tough shape after years of
standing empty. A mysterious white dog plagues daughter Bunny's
imagination, while a mad cousin asserts his claim to the house by
leaving charmed bits of knotted twine everywhere. The road to the
house will be made impassable soon by winter weather, so Quoyle, who
cannot swim, is urged by his new coworkers to buy a boat. He makes
mistake after mistake in arranging his new life, but also makes a few
good moves along the way, and he begins to make a place for himself
and his family in this odd little community that lives off the sea.
The denizens of Quoyle's newly claimed bit of coast are at least as
eccentric and endearing as the characters of television's "Northern
Exposure": the owner of the paper calls in sick almost every day to
go fishing instead, yet rules with an iron fist; an old bachelor writes
the women's-interest page; an Englishman marooned here on his trip
around the world in a modified Chinese junk rewrites stories pulled off
the wire of crime and sexual abuse. The old man who builds Quoyle's
new boat sings a never-ending song of wrecked ships with rhyming names.
And a tall, quiet young widow who plays accordian for her "special"
child to dance to leads Quoyle to wonder and hope that there might be
more than one kind of love, and that it might come more than once in a
Proulx's writing is lyrical, affecting, and at times laugh-out-loud
funny, especially when Quoyle thinks in headlines. The novel's cadence
enraptures the reader, carrying you away to a harsh but beautiful place
where the people who live by the sea are strong and, deep down, warm.
Quoyle is a likable dud who can't win for losing, but whose patience
with and love for his daughters reveals him as a man whose strength of
character is far greater than he guesses. The only thing I regret
about having read this book is that I can never come to it for the
first time again, to be freshly astonished by its quiet truths and its
artful blending of dark humor and honest warmth.