Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News

by Jess

I was supposed to read the screenplay of Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain for grad school, but I never did because I detested the screenplay writing courses.  So my introduction to Annie Proulx was delayed, but I’d say it was worth the wait.  The Shipping News is stylistically unlike any book I’ve ever read.  Most reviews I can find online cite Proulx’s “terse prose,” and that sort of captures it, but not exactly.  Half the sentences in the book are fragments, as though the words were bitten off, but others are long, lyrical descriptions of Newfoundland or the sea or some mundane thing.

The book begins in a lovely way: “Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.  Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence.  Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing.  He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.”  Did you see that?  There’s a whole life in three sentences.

Quoyle goes on to fall madly in love with and marry a woman who doesn’t love him, who runs about with her boyfriends (and in one horrifying scene, brings one home for a toss on the couch while doormat Quoyle weeps in the bedroom), and ends up selling their two kids and taking off, only to die in a car accident.  Quoyle takes the girls and his Aunt Agnis to the family home in Newfoundland, fixes up the place, learns to drive a boat, gut a fish, learns to forget and to love again.  Enough spooky old cousins and terrible storms and near-drownings to keep things interesting.

One review on Amazon, from an actual Newfoundlander no less, says this of the book: “Not only did I recognize [Newfoundland], I came to know it better. She had found the poetry of the place, the brutal indifference of sea and stone, the soft light and the muffling fog. And the voices of the people.”  The voices of the people were particularly funny; lots of “yars” and “ars” from the old Newf fishermen.  And the names!  Everyone had a delightful name.  Partridge, Petal, Ed Punch, Tert Card, Wavey Prowse, Diddy Shovel, Beety Buggit, Mavis Bangs, Nutbeem, Bunny and Sunshine (Quoyle’s daughters).

A good read.  I enjoyed it.  And now off to the library to find something completely different!