March 31, 2010
Shipping News: A Winning Loser

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx is immediately recognizable as a work of genius. Her crystalline descriptions of Newfoundland, where the book is set, are superbly evocative of life on a harsh, danger-ridden island that nonetheless fascinated her:

          “Staring at the rock in the sea. Vikings, the Basques, the French, English, Spanish, Portuguese. Drawn by the cod, from the days when massed fish slowed ships on the drift for the passage to the Spice Isles, expecting cities of gold. The lookout dreamed of roasted auk or sweet berries in cups of platted grass, but saw crumpling waves, lights flickering along the ship rails. The only cities were of ice, bergs with cores of beryl, blue gems within white gems, that some said gave off an odor of almonds.”

Proulx has an equally gifted touch with the humans who inhabit the novel. Within the first few paragraphs, she captures a man’s dismal and aimless life:

          “His jobs: distributor of vending machine candy, all-night clerk in a convenience store, a third-rate newspaperman. At thirty-six, bereft, brimming with grief and thwarted love, Quoyle steered away to Newfoundland, the rock that had generated his ancestors, a place he had never been nor thought to go.”

That, however, is the beginning of a new chance for Quoyle, the earnest underdog who makes us wish something, anything, would go right for him. He’s about to find out that sheer perseverance is the key to contentment if not outright happiness.

I chose The Shipping News as my second should-have-read-before-now book to read this year because it was the only one on the Novel Conversations list to have won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I was soon entranced by the rhythm of Proulx’s prose, the quirky characters, and the image of Newfoundland with its distinctive place names — Killick-Claw, Perdition Cove, Misky Bay.

I had actually been to the island once, when our plane from Europe had mechanical trouble and was forced to land in Gander, the closest North American airport. We were soon back in the air, but the people of Newfoundland hang on, their specialized knowledge of the sea and the techniques of survival allowing them to persist in that remote environment, finding mutual support in each other amidst all the cruel, perverted, inevitable twists of life.

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