After reading her last gratuitously miserable story in the New Yorker, I vowed never to read Annie Proulx again. But when I made this vow to Dan’s mom, she mentioned that she’d already lent me her copy of The Shipping News. I had no choice but to amend my vow and so set out to find that copy. It took me a while because I’d put it in the wrong spot on my bookshelf (which is arranged in a strange, intuitive manner, that makes sense only to me, and only sometimes). But then I found it and started it and was completely transported.

Vow broken–Ms. Proulx is on my triple gold star list now.

I almost had to stop reading her again, from sheer envy, when I hit this, on page one, a paragraph full enough to constitute an entire flash fiction story:

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.


And, at the top of that page, as at the start of every chapter, an image from The Ashley Book of Knots:

As we follow Quoyle, his daughters and an aunt from New York up to their ancestral home in Newfoundland, the story only gets better. There are murders, spectacularly unfaithful spouses, drownings, impasses in the road both literal and figurative, fried bologna, horrific sexual abuse in the past and present, tied-knot curses, imaginary evil dogs, a tall stoic woman with a special needs child, yacht upholstery. And yet, the real dramas are smaller: not who the killer is, but who is providing Quoyle with that next restorative cup of tea?

There are exchanges (and names!) like this:

“Wavey,” said Sunshine, “if you ironed a fish would it be as big as a rug?”

“I think, bigger,” said Wavey. “If unfolded.”

What seems to me the real genius in this exchange between four-year-old and surrogate mother is the comma placement. Wavey, the adult, pauses, takes her time answering this question. She gives justice to it, really thinks. Ms. Proulx gives us a relationship, a person’s full personality, in her punctuation.

A few confusions I had: time period and newspapermen. I could not get a grasp of what decade we were in until near the end of the book when news of the LA race riots was coming in. I would have guessed the 70s before knowing the 90s, although ignoring station wagons and motor boats, the whole story, with its setting and its characters’ sensibilities, seemed very 19th century to me. Also, an unfortunate side-effect of the multitude of quirky names in the story is that I couldn’t keep a few of them straight. Quoyle’s coworkers at the newspaper, all different, uniquely important, never formed fully in my head. I wouldn’t say it was a major problem, but it was one that I feel could have been sorted out by giving them simpler, straight-up names. If one is allowed only one wacky name per short story before it gets distracting, then maybe a handful is okay in a novel–unfortunately, here we get about forty-seven.

But, who cares about the criticisms when you can close the book taking away a meditation on love like this one?

…Was love then like a bag of assorted sweets passed around from which one might choose more than once? Some might sting the tongue, some invoke night perfume. Some had centers as bitter as gall, some blended honey and poison, some were quickly swallowed. And among the common bull’s-eyes and peppermints a few rare ones; one or two with deadly needles at the heart, another that brought calm and gentle pleasure. Were his fingers closing on that one?