Every few years, I re-read Annie Proulx’s classic novel, The Shipping News. It happens when I miss the East—family and friends. When I need to submerge myself in great writing and crave a dose of mellifluent literature. When I need to feel immersed in the sea and small town camaraderie.
But, just what makes this book so endearing? What thrills and feeds me?
If you’ve never heard of it, The Shipping News chronicles, not only the various ships, yachts, and boats that put into the small harbour of Killick-Claw on the barren Newfoundland shore, but also the story of Quoyle. A quoyle is a coil of rope, and here Proulx unravels the terrifyingly beautiful tale of Quoyle’s family: ancestors who were incestuous pirates, who dragged a house to a point on the mainland when they were driven off an island for their barbary. That Quoyle determination lives on in the gentle hero of this story, in the jutting chin, in an underdog who must find his way home.
Like Proulx, Quoyle is also a writer. An American, born in Brooklyn, he stumbles into a job at The Mockingburg Record. He has no idea how to write but wants to learn. It’s that or starve, and he has a friend who gets him an interview. But constant layoffs leave Quoyle hungry. And then he meets Petal Bear: “a month of fiery happiness. Then six kinked years of suffering” (13). Petal is more monster than woman.
“By day she sold burglar alarms at Northern Security, at night, became a woman who could not be held back from strangers’ rooms, who would have sexual conjunction whether in stinking rest rooms or mop cupboards. She went anywhere with unknown men. Flew to nightclubs in distant cities. Made a pornographic video while wearing a mask cut from a potato chip bag. Sharpened her eyeliner pencil with the paring knife, let Quoyle wonder why his sandwich cheese was streaking with green” (14).
Oh Petal. When she vanishes with a new stranger and takes along their two little girls, Bunny aged six and Sunshine aged four and half, Quoyle goes berserk. Naturally. He loves his children, has raised them, cared for them, and now they’re gone. He calls the state police and his newfound aunt, Agnis Hamm. And then they get the news. Car wreck. Petal and the stranger are dead. But where are the kids? It turns out that Petal sold them for seven grand to a pedophile who produces homemade porn. Got a receipt from the pedo. Thank god. “Personal services.”
It’s the aunt that decides it’s time to go home—her hated brother and his wife have just died in a joint suicide pact. She’s lost the love of her life and Quoyle needs a family. So, at age thirty-six, unravelled by Petal’s brutal betrayal, Quoyle packs up his girls and heads to Newfoundland with the aunt. There, he gets a job working atThe Gammy Bird. He’s to cover car wrecks and the shipping news.
Real and honest, eccentric and larger-than-life, the crew atThe Gammy Bird are classic. Jack Buggit, British Nutbeam, Billy Pretty, even the crotch-scratching menace, Tert Card, is endearing in his own awful way. (“Face like cottage cheese clawed with a fork” (57).
The landscape is a character. If you’ve ever wanted to explore Newfoundland, this book will have you packing your bags. (But only in summer, mind.) Eleven foot snowdrifts rival my capacity to love all seasons. The green house on the point is a character too. It sits empty for forty-four years until Quoyle and the aunt decide to fix it up and move in. The aunt’s first act is to dump her brother’s ashes in the outhouse and piss on them. Enough said.
Cheering for the Underdog
How can you not cheer for Quoyle, bursting with love for his daughters? Learning that he’s so much more than a third-rate newspaper reporter? Building a new family on the rock?
Proulx manages to highlight several issues without sounding preachy or forced. She does this with impeccable style through Jack Buggit’s diatribes, conversations, and Quoyle’s inner musings, and his columns.
The economic situation in Newfoundland. Good friend, Dennis Buggitt, talks of going down the road to find work in Toronto. There’s no work for carpenters in Newfoundland and his dad doesn’t want him to fish. Fishing killed his brother. Quoyle fears that if Dennis takes his family to the city they’ll be lost forever. He should know.
The sad story of incest and sexual assault. The Gammy Bird publishes the names of sexual offenders. Thousands of them.
“Nutbeem, I got your S.A. stories running down my computer screen. You writing it by the yard, now? Seven, eight, nine—you got eleven sexual abuse stories here. We put all this in there won’t be room for the other news.”
“You ought to see my notebook. It’s an epidemic.”
Wouldn’t that be worth a read? Nutbeem strings the stories together with precision and flourish. Some names never make the paper. Ask the aunt.
Children with unique abilities. Wavey’s son Herry was born with Down’s Syndrome and there’s no support for him in the local school. So, she and Beety Buggit approach the government for funding to create a special class and provide support. Quoyle’s children, Bunny and Sunshine, are also unique. Both are expelled from nursery school in the states, yet thrive when embraced by family and community.
Fishing woes. There are so many foreign trawlers fishing in the outer reaches, there are no fish left for the locals. Then, there’s the danger of riding out a storm out on the sea. Ask Jack Buggit what happened to his son, Jessen.
Weather. Another character in this story, one who is most often the antagonist.
Oil tankers. We’ve been fighting oil pipelines in B.C. This column by Quoyle says it all:
Nobody Hangs a Picture of an Oil Tanker
Another common sight is black oil scum along miles of landwash, like the shoreline along Cape Despond this week. Hundreds of people watched Monday morning as 14,000 metric tons of crude washed onshore from a ruptured tank of the Golden Goose. Thousands of seabirds and fish struggled in the oil, fishing boats and nets were fouled. “This is the end of this place,” said Jack Eye, 87, of Little Despond, who, as a young man, was a dory fisherman with the schooner fleet (201).
Annie Proulx is a master of the craft and the writing is stunning. Proulx won a Pulitzer for this novel in 1994. I’ve really never seen anything like it: fragments of tight clipped poetic phrases, hard honest dialogue, sea-speak, words I’ve never seen, and dialect that makes us feel like we’re from the rock even if we’re not.
“The auditorium was jammed. A sweep of best clothes, old men in camphor-stinking black jackets that gnawed their underarms, women in silk and fine wools in the colors of camel, cinnabar, cayenne, bronze, persimmon, periwinkle, Aztec red. Imported Italian pumps. Hair crimped and curled, lacquered into stiff clouds. Lipstick. Red circles of rouge. The men with shaved jowls. Neckties like wrapping paper, child in sugar pink and cream. The puff of scented bodies, a murmur like bees over a red field” (276).
Myth & Metaphor
Each chapter is headed by a blurb and image from The Ashley Book of Knots. This 1944 work by Clifford W. Ashley inspired Proulx’s tale. The mix of folk tale and metaphor strengthens the story. Quoyle’s old, demented cousin ties knots to curse them and the house. Mixed with that are blurbs from The Gammy Bird, the local Killick-Claw paper where Quoyle discovers his talent for storytelling as he chronicles “The Shipping News”. This is why you can’t just watch the movie.
In 2001, Miramax released the film. Directed by Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) it has all-star cast: Kevin Spacey as Quoyle, Judi Dench as the aunt, Kate Blanchett as Petal Bear, and Julianne Moore as Wavey (the tall silent woman who captures Quoyle’s heart in Killick-Claw.) As brilliant as the movie is—Annie Proulx and Robert Nelson Jacobs wrote the screenplay—it can’t replace the book.
When I was a kid, one of our family friends was Clyde Quinton, a man from Newfoundland who’d gone down the road. I remember that Clyde was a big gentle man who brought me a doll one year when I was sick. He was known for eating anything and saying simply: “food is food.” I often wonder what happened to Clyde. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve resurrected him in Quoyle.