The Shipping News

by Annie Proulx

Published by Scribner

337 pages, 2001

Buy it online







The Second Truth

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


No matter how much it may suffer in transition, the movie version of a novel usually gives the original work a second birth. This means that Annie Proulx's brilliant 1993 Pulitzer-winner is out again in glossy Hollywood format, complete with cover photos of Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett. Not that it needed the boost. But the cinematic counterpart was worth making (and viewing) if only to steer us all back to Proulx's masterpiece.

I committed the unpardonable sin of watching the movie first. But perhaps it was better this way; had I already partaken of this exquisite prose-poem, the film, no matter how well-wrought, would have struck me as a pale, smudged, 100th-generation photocopy.

Or maybe it's more like fruit. The movie was a nice box of raisins, handy for snacking; but the book is a fat cluster of dew-misted grapes eaten straight off the vine. Speaking of fruit, here is just one of Proulx's effortless riffs:

The man had a passion for fruit. Quoyle remembered purple-brown seckle pears the size and shape of figs, his father taking the meat off with pecking bites, the smell of fruit in their house, litter of cores and peels in the ashtrays, the grape cluster skeletons, peach stones like hens' brains on the windowsill, the glove of banana peel on the car dashboard.

Proulx's Quoyle is hardly the Kevin Spacey type, but an ungainly, terminally shy, homely tub of a man with "a great damp loaf of a body" and "features as bunched as kissed fingertips." "Some anomalous gene had fired up at the moment of his begetting as a single spark sometimes leaps from banked coals, had given him a giant's chin." Quoyle's hand keeps shooting up to cover it, thus drawing even more attention to his worst feature. In other words, he's no hero. Flawed, self-conscious, well-meaning but generally ineffectual, he is us the part of us we all try (usually in vain) to hide.

Though he makes a sort of living as a third-rate newspaper reporter in Mockingbird, N. Y. (Proulx has a genius for place names), his life does not begin to fizz until he hooks up with a gaudy, shady woman named Petal Bear:

There was a month of fiery happiness. Then six kinked years of suffering .... Desire reversed to detestation like a rubber glove turned inside-out.

Two sweet daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, are the only good result.

The macabre regularly visits Quoyle in the form of precipitous death. Petal dies horribly in a car crash, but not before attempting to sell her daughters to a porn moviemaker for $7000. Quoyle's parents, both riddled with cancer and debt, poison themselves with barbiturates, leaving their last words on his answering machine. This brings his Aunt Agnis Hamm, his father's sister, into the picture:

Quoyle, in the teeth of trouble, saw a stouthearted older woman. His only female relative.

"Stay with us," he said. "I don't know what to do." He waited for the aunt to shake her head, say no, she had to be getting back, could only stay a minute longer.

She nodded. "A few days. Get things straightened up." Rubbed her palms together as if a waiter had just set a delicacy before her. "You can look at it this way," she said. "You've got a chance to start out all over again. A new place, new people, new sights. A clean slate. See, you can be anything you want with a fresh start."

Quoyle's fresh start is an unlikely transplant to Aunt Agnis' girlhood home of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland. The old family homestead is an abandoned shell of a place, literally strapped down with cables to keep it from blowing away. Quoyle finds work writing the shipping news column for a local newspaper called The Gammy Bird, which Proulx describes as "... a hard bite. Looked life right in its shifty, blood-shot eye. A tough little paper."

The Gammy Bird specializes in "Blood, Boats and Blowups" car crashes, marine disasters of every stripe, and lurid sexual assault cases. It's staffed by characters that would be unbelievable in lesser hands, among them Billy Pretty, "small, late in his seventh decade. His face: wood engraved with fanned lines ... Bushy eyebrows, a roach of hair the color of an antique watch" and Tert Card, "face like cottage cheese clawed with a fork", who describes himself as "the bloody so-called managing editor, copy editor, rewrite man, mechanicals, ad makeup department, mail and distribution chief, snow shoveler. "

Though it can take several chapters to get into the rhythm of Proulx's writing, after a while the effect is intoxicating. She captures Newfoundland speech so perfectly it almost hurts: "You got your tomcod, your salt cod, your rounders ... Any way you want to call it, it's fish." Tert Card rails against "those twits in Ottawa who don't know a lumpfish from their own arse .... We lives by rules made somewhere else by sons of bitches don't know nothin' about this place."

The Shipping News does not have a conventional plot, but unfolds in quirkily graceful episodes so drenched in atmosphere that they are like beautifully polished, linked short stories. It would be unfair to give away too much of these delicious vignettes, except to say that Quoyle is eventually attracted to a local woman, the widowed Wavey Prowse, mother of a son with Down's syndrome. If you've seen the movie, you'll remember Julianne Moore's sad attempts at a Newfoundland accent and even sadder efforts to play down her sleek, citified glamour.

Don't believe for one minute that this is the real Wavey Prowse. Dive into this book and meet the real thing -- her rough, windblasted beauty, vulnerable toughness, warmth and wariness. If you haven't read The Shipping News, get your hands on this new edition. If you have, read it again. The movie is as grape soda to the novel's rare and sweetly headspinning wine. | January 2002


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.