This 1993 novel won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize and was turned into a movie. The Shipping News is the story of a man named Quoyle over the course of a few eventful, transformative years of his life. Proulx’s unique writing style combines poetry and humor to create characters who might be from a folk tale or might be your next door neighbor.
Hive spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramps, he survived childhood….”
Quoyle is a lot like Charlie Brown — a blockhead, a loser who, despite his best efforts, just can’t seem to fit in. His own father and older brother were abusive toward him, declaring him a lout and using a variety of other colorful expressions to make fun of his large, heavyset, lumbering, “great damp loaf of a body.” By the time he reached the age of 36, Quoyle had held a variety of dead end jobs, the most promising of which was as a sometime reporter for the small local newspaper in Mockingburg, NY. He married a woman named Petal who abused him and their two daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, while engaging in serial adultery. The deaths of Quoyle’s parents and of Petal lead to Quoyle’s introduction to his father’s sister, Agnis Hamm. With the guidance and support of his aunt, Quoyle and his daughters move with her back to the ancestral home in Newfoundland.
The home is a character itself. Lashed to a rock like a wild animal to prevent it from blowing over into the bay, it has stood on Quoyle’s Point for 100 years but has been vacant for several decades. It becomes clear that Aunt Agnis, the driving force for moving back to the house, has her own agenda for doing so, some secret from the past that must be met head on. Meanwhile, her nephew Quoyle struggles to come to terms with the death of his faithless wife while trying to raise two unusual young daughters and manage a new job at the local paper The Gammy Bird.
The year or so that the novel covers at this point is Quoyle’s journey to self-awareness and self-esteem. While the town of Killick-Claw is small and the families all know each other’s histories, including the Quoyles’, Quoyle is welcomed. They find him a curiosity — someone whose family left and came back. This is unheard of! And they’re also curious to see if Quoyle exhibits any of the lunacy that his ancestors were known for.
Omaloor Bay is called after Quoyles. Loonie. They was wild and inbred, half-wits and murderers. Half of them was low minded.
This charming description comes from one of Quoyle’s friends, a newspaperman named Billy Pretty. The newspaper staff are a colorful crew of men who get on pretty well together but who each have their own frustrated dreams. Owner Jack Buggit has lost several family members to the sea and has an uncanny sense for the sea’s interaction with those he loves. Tertius “Tert” Card, managing editor, is crude and something of a bully, and longs to move away. Billy, a bachelor, handles home and hearth news and gossip. Nutbeem, the Englishman, covers national news, foreign news and sexual assaults; the latter happen so frequently, they are featured several times per week. Quoyle’s beat is car wrecks, which are required front page news, and the shipping news. As Nutbeem observes to Quoyle,
[Jack] gives you a beat that plays on your private inner fears.
Quoyle’s wife died in a car wreck and Quoyle cannot swim or manage a boat very well. But he takes on these responsibilities and eventually turns the shipping news from a dull report on ships arriving and departing to a column on particular ships of note.
During this year, Quoyle transforms; he finds friends, meaningful work, and self-worth; falls for a “tall quiet woman” named Wavey; learns the history of the region and the truth about his family. Lest it seem that this is a tale of down home simplicity and goodness overcoming the evils wrought by big city badness, be assured that it is not. Through the staff and stories in The Gammy Bird, the reader learns the grim truths about life amongst the fishing communities of Newfoundland — the economic hardship, family strife, crime and death. It started a little slow, but when the Quoyles return to Newfoundland, things start hopping. The people who live in Killick-Claw, even those who only show up for a page or two, are complicated and fascinating, as drawn by the skillful hand of Annie Proulx. Her writing is colorful and detailed, like this description of the harbormaster:
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.
And Proulx displays a deep knowledge of and compassion for the lives of her Newfoundlanders. Written in the 1990s, Proulx shows the decline of the fisheries and the devastating impact on both the local economy and families. Overall, the novel really drew me in. Proulx is a superb storyteller.