It’s nice every now and then to correct the experts, don’t you think? My edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die states that Edna Ann Proulx didn’t start writing fiction until she was in her fifties. Which makes it sound as if she was in real estate or accounting and then, rather unexpectedly, started writing award-winning books. (In 1993 she won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Postcards; The Shipping News, which came out in 1994, received the National Book Award, the Heartland Prize from The Chicago Tribune, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and the Pulitzer.)
The fact is, her first published work of fiction was a science fiction tale called “The Customs Lounge” which appeared in September 1963, when she was 28. She had another the following year in Seventeen magazine, which I must have read as I devoured Seventeen and never missed an issue. (I still have vivid memories of Colleen Corby who appeared on an unprecedented 15 covers and was featured in the magazine’s fashion spreads almost every month.) But back to Proulx.
I read somewhere that she wrote The Shipping News as an experiment – after the success of Postcards, which has been called a true American tragedy, her editors suggested she write something with a happy ending. If that was her intent, I’m not sure she succeeded. Although happiness is a subjective emotion and one person’s fairytale ending is someone else’s nightmare. This is not to say The Shipping News is a gloomy novel – it’s filled with humour, bizarre and quirky characters, jokes . . . situations that will make you laugh out loud. But the ending is a kind of truce, an uneasy period of calm before the next storm lashes the coast.
The protagonist, Quoyle, is an unlikely hero. An overweight, lumpish 36-year-old who lives in the town of Mockingburg in upstate New York. He has a “head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair” and “features as bunched as kissed fingertips”. He also has an abnormally large chin, which he frequently tries to hide with his hands. We never learn his first name. Quoyle is lonely and desperately unhappy. His selfish, unloving parents favoured his abusive older brother and convinced him he was, and always would be, a failure. Hi sole friend is a cheerful copy editor named Partridge, who works at the local paper and is an excellent cook. Aside from his daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, Partridge and his wife Mercalia provide Quoyle with his sole companionship.
His marriage, as such, is a farce. Petal is an attractive but nasty piece of work who will sleep with anybody and everybody, and does, making Quoyle’s life a misery. In spite of her malicious taunts he sticks with her to the end, which happens when she and her lover, running away to Florida, are killed in a car crash. (The fact that Petal sells the girls to a paedophile before running away seems a bit over the top; you get the sense that Proulx wants to ensure that if we had any vestige of affection for this woman, this will be sure to snuff it out.) In spite of everything she put him through, Quoyle grieves for his dead wife, believing she was his one and only chance of experiencing love.
Quoyle struggles to keep his little family together until his aunt, Agnis Hamm, turns up and convinces him to accompany her to Newfoundland. His wife is dead, his parents have committed suicide . . . there’s nothing to keep him in New York. She’s homesick and she wants to see the old family home, if it’s still standing. With help from Partridge, Quoyle lands a job on The Gammy Bird, a small newspaper in Killick-Claw, and he, his daughters, the aunt, and her old dog Warren set off for “the Rock”. (The death of Warren, by the way, is incredibly touching. I cried when I read it, and, as you know, I’m a hard-bitten book reviewer. I don’t know much about E. Annie Proulx but I bet she owns a dog. Or did.)
Through Agnis and various townsfolk, Quoyle learns a good deal about his ancestors, a colourful if disreputable bunch who mostly made their living as wreckers, luring ships onto the treacherous rocks and helping themselves to the cargo. Disliked by their neighbours – a feeling that was mutual, it seems – earlier Quoyles towed the family home miles from Killick-Claw to a remote, desolate outpost overlooking the foggy northern coast. They settled it on the point of a bluff overlooking the ocean, and tied it down with cables to prevent it from rocking in the wind. The aunt is overjoyed to find that the house, which has been empty for more than 40 years, is still standing, although it’s gravely in need of repair. While she gets builders in to make the place habitable and prepares to get her ship upholstery business up and running, Quoyle goes to work at the newspaper.
In my opinion, The Gammy Bird is one of the best things about this book. Owned and edited by Jack Buggit, a local fisherman, the newspaper flies in the face of anything and everything pertaining to good journalism. It specializes in car wrecks, sexual abuse stories, and typos. Buggit knows what his readers want: “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.” Quoyle, who is deathly afraid of water and whose wife was killed in a car accident, is assigned to the car wreck beat and the shipping news. For someone with little or no experience, he writes surprisingly well. Almost inadvertently, he transforms the shipping news from a list of ships in harbour into a popular weekly column.
While Quoyle is the hero, every other character has a story. We learn about the aunt’s lifelong partner, Irene Warren, for whom her beloved dog is named, and the fact that she – the aunt – was sexually abused as a child by her brother, Quoyle’s father. Bunny, Quoyle’s older daughter, suffers from nightmares, has a particular terror of white dogs, and may be gifted with second sight. Buggit, Quoyle’s boss, prefers fishing to newspapering but has a definite eye for a story. Over the years he’s rescued many people from drowning but the sorrow of his life is that he was unable to save his son, Jesson, who died at sea. And angry, demented old Nolan, Quoyle’s only living relative, squirrelled away in his hermit’s lair, leaves bits of knotted twine around Quoyle’s house, as a warning. Oh, and he owns a white dog.
Proulx takes a slow, almost glacial approach to her narrative. Long periods where nothing much happens are punctuated by events that take the story in new, unexpected directions. Quoyle discovers a suitcase floating in the water, containing the severed head of one of his aunt’s clients, who left without paying for her services. A goodbye party for Nutbeem, one of Quoyle’s colleagues, goes awry when the drunken guests, in an effort to prevent him from leaving, hack his boat to pieces. Near the end, the old Quoyle home is yanked off its moorings in a storm and disappears without a trace. Considering the time, effort and money she put into fixing it up, the aunt takes it pretty well. “‘I’ll get over this,” she said. “I’ve always been good at it. Getting over things.'” And she has – she’s survived sexual abuse, the death of her partner, the loss of her dog. She’ll move to St. John’s where her shop is, build a summer home on the site of the house. “As usual,” Quoyle thinks, “the aunt was way out front and running.”
The best parts of the story – the parts where you feel Proulx is on a roll, so to speak – are the stories, the oral histories, rollicking tales of shipwrecks and marital mishaps, spontaneous monologues that capture the flavour, the almost surreal humour of the islanders. I had it in my head, before reading The Shipping News, that it was a love story. There is love, eventually, between Quoyle and Wavey Prowse, the “tall and quiet woman” with a troubled past and a son with Down syndrome. But the real love affair is between the author and Newfoundland – the landscape, the inhabitants, the weather. And the water. It’s to be expected that a story set in this part of the world would feature the ocean so consistently, in all its manifestations. Drownings are a regular occurrence – Quoyle himself comes close to drowning near the end, and his editor, Jack Buggit, actually does drown. And comes to life again, in his coffin at his own wake.
I feel I need to say something about the writer’s use of metaphor. They are convoluted and somewhat perplexing, and they tend to get in the way of the story. “Waves struck with the hollowed basso peculiar to ovens and mouseholes.” Um, what? You keep coming up against “taught thighs like Chinese bridges” and “eyes like willow leaves” and you find yourself stopping to wonder, what does a willow leaf look like again? Exactly? Some are just awful: “The bay crawled with whitecaps like maggots seething in a broad wound.” But then, a few lines later: “The waves pouring onshore had a thick look to them, a kind of moody rage.” When it works, it works.