Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Annie Proulx's The Shipping News is a vigorous, darkly comic, and at times magical portrait of the contemporary North American family. Quoyle, a third-rate newspaper hack, with a "head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair...features as bunched as kissed fingertips," is wrenched violently out of his workaday life when his two-timing wife meets her just desserts. An aunt convinces Quoyle and his two emotionally disturbed daughters to return with her to the starkly beautiful coastal landscape of their ancestral home in Newfoundland. Here, on desolate Quoyle's Point, in a house empty except for a few mementos of the family's unsavory past, the battered members of three generations try to cobble up new lives. Newfoundland is a country of coast and cove where the mercury rarely rises above seventy degrees, the local culinary delicacy is cod cheeks, and it's easier to travel by boat and snowmobile than on anything with wheels. In this harsh place of cruel storms, a collapsing fishery, and chronic unemployment, the aunt sets up as a yacht upholsterer in nearby Killick-Claw, and Quoyle finds a job reporting the shipping news for the local weekly, the Gammy Bird (a paper that specializes in sexual-abuse stories and grisly photos of car accidents). As the long winter closes its jaws of ice, each of the Quoyles confronts private demons, reels from catastrophe to minor triumph--in the company of the obsequious Mavis Bangs; Diddy Shovel the strongman; drowned Herald Prowse; cane-twirling Beety; Nutbeem, who steals foreign news from the radio; a demented cousin the aunt refuses to recognize; the much-zippered Alvin Yark; silent Wavey; and old Billy Pretty, with his bag of secrets. By the time of the spring storms Quoyle has learned how to gut cod, to escape from a pickle jar, and to tie a true lover's knot.
Proulx's characters are remarkable. Quirks, nuances, pithy utterances - all contribute to populating the tiny Newfoundland town and surrounding areas. The main character Quoyle is perhaps best known by his synecdoche: his chin. His jutting, highly visible chin, marker of shame for him, resting point for his massive hands in a vain effort to hide its protuberant nature, can best illustrate Quoyle's flummoxed and pusillanimous self. Perhaps my favorite part of this novel (besides the thrill of being beset by incomplete sentences!) is to see the gentle Quoyle adapt to the harsh Newfoundland life, discover the joy of clearing a path through thickening brush to his quiet cove, hop aboard his wreck of a boat and assemble the bones of his new vessel, sloppily gut a fish and then do so as a matter of course, court a mirror of himself and see in her his ability to experience joy. With skill does Proulx unfold this progression of character, in bits and chunks, slowly, as Quoyle with his bulk is wont to do things, but with an incrementally increasing confidence amid confusion that makes him a truly interesting character.
My inner stickler is still sobbing, the baby. Hearty book of cold places, yakking people, rain snow wind, creaking timbers, fishing industry diatribes, glorious sunlight, cod fried and breaded and pied, ocean swells, multiplicity of knots.
Annie Proulx Rocks. Pun Intended.
Quoyle, protagonist of The Shipping News and known only by his surname, is a huge, miserable lug of a man, a failure-extraordinaire, excoriated by his family and cheated on by his wife. Middle-aged and father of two young daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, he agrees to move with his aunt, Agnis Hamm, back to the land of his roots: Newfoundland. Killick-Claw proves to be his silver lining. He lands a job at a quirky, local newspaper, Gammy Bird, where writes a weekly column, “The Shipping News.” (Part of his charm, the paper owner assures him, is that he doesn’t have a clue what he is talking about). Quoyle settles in, and one new experience follows another: he makes some steadfast friends; experiences some adventure on the high seas; and is in danger of coming of age when he is attracted to local widow, Wavey Prowse.
The Shipping News is a story of Newfoundland and of its people: an isolated, wild, untamable place, populated by characters who are quirky as hell, tough as nails, and salt of the earth. By extension, it is also a story of the sea, glassy and murderous in equal parts. Proulx excels at bringing both place and character to the page. She introduces us to Killick-Claw’s harbormaster, identifying him first by physical appearance, and then by place, as he recalls a storm at sea:
“Diddy Shovel’s skin was like asphalt, fissured and cracked, thickened by a lifetime of weather, the scurf of age. Stubble worked through the craquelured surface. His eyelids collapsed in protective folds at the outer corners. Bristled eyebrows; enlarged pores gave the nose a sandy appearance. Jacket split at the shoulder seams.” (79)
“It never leaves you. You never hear the wind after that without you remember that banshee moan, remember the watery mountains, crests torn into foam, the poor ship groaning. Bad enough at any time, but this was the deep of winter and the cold was terrible, the ice formed on rail and rigging until vessels was carrying thousands of pounds of ice. The snow drove so hard it was just a roar of white outside these windows. Couldn’t see the street below. The sides of the houses to the northwest was plastered a foot thick with snow as hard as steel.” (83)
I think I’ve already made it obvious, but Proulx is genius. Her writing and her tone throughout capture both Newfoundland and its inhabitants beautifully, her sense of place and of character brilliant. Nor does she shy away from political comment, addressing head-on the longstanding economic strife of resource-rich Newfoundland, created in large(st) part by politics and politicians – “those twits in Ottawa.” (285) This is a book I’ve had on my shelf for years that I kept meaning to get to – I’m glad “later” finally arrived. Highly recommended.
“All the complex wires of life were stripped out and he could see the structure of life. Nothing but rock and sea, the tiny figures of humans and animals against them for a brief time.” (196)
This, then, is one of the protagonists of The Shipping News.
At 36, after his philandering wife Ruby has died in an automobile accident with her current lover, Quoyle’s aunt persuades him to take his two young daughters sunshine and Bunny and move with her back to the family’s origin, Newfoundland, Canada. After an epic journey in survival, Quoyle and his family arrive in Killick-Claw at the family home—a broken-down wreck of a house that will shelter them but just barely; it needs massive repairs. Quoyle snags a job as a newspaper reporter for the local weekly, the Gammy Bird. He has two main responsibilities: dredging up stories and photos of bloody auto wrecks for the front page, and getting the list of ships in port from the harbormaster—in other words, reporting the shipping news.
An odd duck himself, Quoyle fits surprisingly well into what is a non-conformist community. His seemingly boring job at The Gammy Bird presents him with an unanticipated opportunity for real creative journalism, which he eagerly pursues. He strikes up unlikely friendships with his coworkers and neighbors. An attractive but reserved widow confuses Quoyle who does not understand, given his single experience, that love is not synonymous with pain. These, then, are the elements of the novel which does not “go” anywhere, really, once Quoyle, his closeted lesbian aunt (whose name we never find out), and his two daughters reach Newfoundland.
From this beginning, Proulx has crafted an unusual novel in which the second protagonist is Newfoundland itself—or rather, its way of life as evidenced through the beliefs, speech, actions, and cuisine of as iconoclastic a bunch of characters as you are likely to meet. Proulx uses language to terrific effect, incorporating idiomatic words and phrases that are usually—but definitely not always—revealed in meaning through the context (sooner or later). Clearly she found the cuisine of Newfoundland fascinating if weird and maybe even slightly repellent, just by the way she inserts local dishes into scenes. For example, breakfast “oatmeal with a side dish of bologna” in the Bawks Nest (and what is a bawk?—we never find out).
“Now who’s having the scallops,” said the waitress holding a white plate heaped with pallid clumps, a mound of rice, a slice of bleached bead.
“That was my idea,’ said the aunt, frowning at her pale food, whispering to Quoyle. “Should have gone to Skipper Will’s for squidburgers.”
This is not the stuff of which tourist guides are made. While there are other examples, my favorite revolting meal remains the oatmeal with a side of bologna. Or maybe fried eggs being smashed into fish hash. Hard to pick my favorite virtual nausea.
One of the wilder aspects of The Shipping News is the reporting done in the Gammy Bird. Its readers evidently are riveted by the weekly accounts of rape, child molestation, and other sexual exploits. There are so many—7-10 per week—that at times it seems as if 50% of the male population of that part of Newfoundland is actively engaged in sexual deviancy for the delight and delectation of the other 50% and the entire female population.
Another way in which Proulx uses language is in short, choppy sentences with oddly jarring juxtaposition of adjectives and nouns. It is extremely effective descriptively, giving startling images, at times, of the harsh landscape. Her use of language takes some adjustment on the part of the reader, but once you become accustomed to the rhythm or lack of it and the unusual thrown-together sentences, it becomes addictive.
Even the names have this jarring quality: Al Catalog, Ed Punch, Billy Pretty, Jack Buggit, Tert Card, Nutbeen and Quoyle himself. They stop you as you read, hold you up, startle you at first, until like the prose itself, they become part of the odd, jarring, harsh landscape of Newfoundland.
Adding to the pleasure of the book are the chapter headings, almost all of which are taken from the Ashley Book of Knots, published in 1944. The diagrams are clever, and you practically itch to get a piece of rope in your hands and try the mesh knot, the mooring hitch, and others. I’m proud to say that I now know the difference between the clove hitch ands two half hitches, and what a bight is.
Quoyle and the unfolding of his personality is a marvelously touching story that is told without a whiff of sentiment. In fact, that can be said of the whole book, and I think is Proulx’s view of Newfoundland and everyone in it, and is a large part of the genius of the book. Because make no mistake, this is a modern American masterpiece.
- I hate movie covers for paperback editions. Quoyle is described as a big fat man with a huge chin. The cover shows a picture of Kevin Spacey, who is neither fat nor does he have a big chin.
- I hate telegraph style and there was plenty of it in this book.
Both things didn't deter me from actually reading the book and I was surprised how much I liked it despite not being able to get into the Accordeon Crimes by Annie Proulx. And although I didn't like the telegraph style of the Shipping News, I did like the all uppercase headlines thrown in. It read like Quoyle thought of himself as a second rate provincial news story.
The story is set on the edge of the world - Newfoundland, where Quoyle, a loser, moves with his two daughters and his aunt. Having been unsuccessful and trampled upon all his life he needs to go back to his roots to Newfoundland to start all over again and find happiness, satisfaction and even love.
Quoyle (known by his surname) is one of life's good guys who's perpetually on the wrong side of lady luck. He missed the queue for good looks, is continually laid off from his job, and eventually winds up marrying the worst kind of woman who grinds her heel on his heart on a daily basis. When she's killed in a road accident (no spoiler - on the book jacket) he takes up his aunt's offer to take his two young daughters back to the family's homeland in Newfoundland for a new start.
This is an incredibly atmospheric book - life on Newfoundland feels so vivid, from the taste of the seafood to the grey winter days, the swelling seas and the camaraderie between the townsfolk who help turn Quoyle's life around. There is enough plot to keep you turning the pages, and yet it's gentle and unrushed, with writing that's made to be savoured.
This is a book that deserves a great review, but I'm totally knackered and incapable of stringing any eloquent sentences together. Just trust me - it's brilliant.
5 stars - a book that truly deserves a future re-read.
The author's bio says she "lives in Vermont and Newfoundland", which is to say she lives in Newfoundland as an outsider and can therefore tell us more about it than we are likely to hear from anyone who lives only in Newfoundland. Proulx's vivid observations of Newfoundland life and speech come to us primarily through the mediating consciousness of her protagonist Quoyle, born in the United States to a Newfoundlander, who as college dropout and newspaperman has so little going for him that he can plausibly be drawn back to Newfoundland by family ties and the prospect of a newspaper job. There he is instructed by his managing editor in the art of gratifying the readership with pictures of car wrecks, stories about perverts, and helpful hints for home life.
Taking her own character's advice, the author makes sure to pepper her plot with plenty of gruesome misfortunes, though the disasters that threaten the central characters are always narrowly averted. This authorial tenderness extends to the sexual misconduct as well, for the central characters, though wronged by others, themselves remain innocent of evildoing.
What's great about this novel is that we get to watch the metamorphosis of Quoyle from an impotent, victimized, and hapless character with no real direction or home, to a man who develops his own sense of empowerment and value. All of this change is woven in with his family's dark past. The Quoyles don't have a great reputation in Killick-Claw; in the past they were known as the misfits and malcontents. Quoyle and his aunt manage, through developing their own reputations based on personal merit, to forge a new generation of Quoyles who are a vital part of the well-being of the community.
Entwined in the story is a haunting and delicate sea mysticism that works nicely with the plot as a whole. Newfoundland is almost an invisible character in the story, and I almost imagined its spirit helping to work the changes in both the Quoyles and the community.
I don't have time to continue this at present, so I will end by recommending the book to you. I haven't seen the movie, but I will Netflix it. I expect disappointment, but that goes without saying.
I've never lived on the coast of Newfoundland, so I'm not in any position to comment on realism, but to me it feels genuine and true - sympathetic, yet unflinching, and never condescending or sentimental about the "old ways" ant it'sabout poverty, isolation, hardship, and helplessness.
I liked it much more than I thought I would.
I liked Proulx's style -- short crisp newspaper like sentences and her use of knots at the start of each chapter to describe the changes in her characters. As Quoyle changes, the pace of the book moves from slow and methodical to near-blistering... I took a half a star off just because the last few chapters seemed too jarring to me -- tying everything up at the end as quickly as possible. Overall, a really wonderful and interesting story.
From all outward appearances, Quoyle,a patient, self-deprecating, oversized hack writer, has gone through his first 36 years on earth as a big schlump of a loser. He's not attractive, he's not brilliant or witty or talented, and he's not the kind of person who typically assumes the central position in a novel. But Proulx creates a simple and compelling tale of Quoyle's psychological and spiritual growth.
Following the deaths of his abusive parents and adulteress wife, Quoyle moves with his two daughters and straight-thinking aunt, Agnes Hamm, back to the ancestral manse in Killick-Claw, a Newfoundland harbor town of no great distinction. Quoyle, with minimal experience as a newspaper man in New York, gets a job at the local newspaper, the Gammy Bird, recording the weekly shipping news, doing features on visiting ships, and covering local car wrecks. Agnes continues her business of upholstering ship and yacht interiors, and Quoyle's little girls settle into school and day care.
Killick-Claw may not be perfect, but it is a stable enough community for Quoyle and Family to recover from the terrors of their past lives. But this is more than Quoyle's story: it is a moving re-creation of a place and people buffeted by nature and change.
The main character is Quoyle, a big, introverted man who is self-consciously aware of all his faults and failings, and who stumbles his way through life without planning or design. He becomes a newspaperman by happenstance, then falls into a lopsided marriage with a philandering woman who dies in a car accident while in the act of leaving him for another man — but not before she gives him two daughters, whom he loves almost painfully. After his wife’s death, Quoyle allows his only relative, whom he refers to as “the aunt,” to persuade him to move to their long-abandoned family home in Newfoundland.
Newfoundland comes across as a bleak, godforsaken place, where drowning accidents and child abuse are commonplace. Storms, winter, unemployment and deep-fried foods plague the people who live there. The house they return to is without electricity or bathrooms, literally bolted to the bare rock. But despite himself, Quoyle makes a home in Newfoundland, and begins to build a life. He lands a job on the local newspaper reporting the shipping news, makes friends and even meets a woman. Through his eyes, we see the good-hearted side of Newfoundland, as well as all the depressing aspects of life there.
Proulx tells her story of a quiet man rebuilding his life with warmth and good humor. One particular scene, of a raucous, drunken party in the trailer of Quoyle’s colleague, made me grimace and laugh out loud at the same time. Even though Proulx never writes a complete sentence when a fragment will do (which I found a little annoying), this novel gathered me in and made me care. By the end, I was heartily rooting for Quoyle to find the happiness he didn’t think he deserved.