Monday, December 20, 2021

the last book I read

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx.

Quoyle's woyfe is voyle, and she's been cheating on him in spectacular stoyle for quoyte a whoyle.

Let's start again. Quoyle is a great big lumbering oaf of a man employed in a fairly hack journalism job in upstate New York. He has made a somewhat unlikely marriage to Petal which has produced two young daughters, Bunny and Sunshine. Quoyle is puppyishly devoted to Petal despite her being chronically, serially and openly unfaithful to him and arriving home drunk and festooned with jism at all hours of the day and night.

Eventually Petal's penchant for wild and messy unfaithfulness results in her being involved in a wild and messy car accident which results in her wild and messy death. Not only does Quoyle have to cope with this, while already reeling from the death of both of his parents, but he also has to subsequently arrange the retrieval of Bunny and Sunshine from the shady character in Connecticut that Petal has sold them to to realise some money for the road trip.

Help arrives from an unexpected source: Quoyle's aunt, Agnis, who he was only dimly aware even existed. Agnis helps Quoyle tie up some affairs in New York and then  persuades him that the best thing to do would be to make a clean break and for the whole family, herself included, to relocate to the ancestral home of the Quoyles, Newfoundland. The blasted, snowy, rocky, sparsely-populated wastes of the north-eastern reaches of Canada would be a tough sell, you might think, compared with somewhere like the Bahamas, anyway, but Quoyle agrees pretty readily, keen for a radical change of environment.

And so Quoyle, aunt Agnis and the girls make the great trek north in Quoyle's rickety old station wagon and arrive at the northern tip of Newfoundland, home of ... well, not much, really, apart from the small settlement of Killick-Claw and the promontory known as Quoyle's Point on top of which the old Quoyle family home still stands, tethered to the rock by several steel cables to prevent it being blown into the bay below. The family moves into a motel in the short term and then, once it has been rendered just-about-habitable, the house. 

Even in the far north, people still need news, and as luck would have it the local paper, the Gammy Bird, is in need of writers and Quoyle gets a job there, initially just getting daily bulletins regarding the comings and goings in the local harbour (the, if you will, "shipping news") but soon expanding into a more general series of maritime features. The motley crew of eccentrics at the Gammy Bird provides Quoyle with a way into the local community, where despite Quoyle's evident blamelessness some of the older members are suspicious of him because of his ancestry. The old Quoyles, it turns out, were a wild and lawless bunch who made much of their day-to-day living from luring ships onto the rocks and looting the resulting wrecks, and moreover in their personal lives weren't above a bit of the old rape and incest, often at the same time.

Quoyle gradually integrates himself and his family into community life - after it becomes apparent that winter will most likely render the track to the house impassable he acquires a boat, and is barely rescued from drowning after it capsizes. He also acquires more responsibility at the newspaper, and embarks on a tentative relationship with taciturn widow Wavey Prowse. Wavey's dead husband, it turns out, was unfaithful to her in a similar way to Petal. Can Wavey and Quoyle conquer the demons of their past (and his ancestors' pasts, in Quoyle's case) and have a future together? Perhaps a heavily symbolic storm bringing death and destruction to the community will help?

I didn't know a great deal about The Shipping News before I picked it up fairly recently in a charity shop - I've never seen the film, for instance. The first thing that struck me was the odd coincidence of the action here being mainly situated in northern Newfoundland, a fairly short distance from Cape Breton at the northern tip of Nova Scotia, where most of the action in No Great Mischief takes place. The second thing that's a bit odd from a plotting perspective is the first section (the bit that takes place in New York) - a lot of plot development happens in a very short space of time, compared with, arguably, not a great deal happening for the rest of the novel. So there's the death of Quoyle's parents (in some sort of barbiturate-overdose suicide pact after both receiving grim terminal disease diagnoses), Petal's various lurid infidelities, the car crash, the hooking up with auntie and the rescuing of the girls from some sort of paedogeddon situation all to be got out of the way by page 28 because then it's into the car and off to Newfoundland. That whole section is weirdly compressed and lurid compared with the rest of the novel, and the brief episode where Petal sells the girls into kiddy-porn slavery to raise a few grand for a road trip is pretty incongruous, or, to be less charitable, ridiculous. That was all stuff that just had to happen to provide the foundation for the rest of the novel (the bit Proulx actually wanted to write, evidently) but there is some value in making it seem less perfunctory.

The rest of it is pretty good, although Quoyle's transition from shy bumbling type and half-arsed journalist to reasonably confident outdoorsy type and crafter of tightly compelling maritime anecdotes for the Gammy Bird is a bit implausibly smooth, and the episode where Jack Buggit (the Gammy Bird's editor) seemingly drowns after falling out of his fishing boat and then miraculously revives while lying in his own coffin is jarringly implausible. It's all very engaging, though, and the cast of mildly eccentric locals is entertaining. I enjoyed it, the reservations above aside, though I was less bowled over by it than the Pulitzer committee evidently were, as they awarded it the fiction prize for 1994. Previous winners featured on this blog include The Road, Gilead, Independence Day, A Thousand Acres, Breathing Lessons, BelovedForeign Affairs, The Grapes Of Wrath and The Bridge Of San Luis Rey. It was also made into a film in 2001; fair to say, I think, that those who'd formed a mental picture of Quoyle from reading the book wouldn't in general have been picturing Kevin Spacey. A chubbier John Lithgow, maybe? A resurrected and Americanised Bernard Bresslaw? Cate Blanchett as Petal is a bold bit of casting as well; I was picturing a small, intense, dark-haired type like Laura San Giacomo. Anyway, for all the casting oddities the main thing I took away from this trailer is the extraordinary way Voice-Over Guy pronounces "Proulx" as something like "Provolole" about six seconds in. I mean I don't know the definitive pronunciation, but it surely can't be that: "Proo" or "Prool" would be the obvious options. I can only assume he had one take to get it done, hadn't rehearsed, saw "Proulx" bearing down on him like a freight train in the script and panicked. 

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