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Oh, to Be Less of an Oaf in Newfoundland : THE SHIPPING NEWS, By E. Annie Proulx (Charles Scribner's Sons: $20; 337 pp.)

July 18, 1993|William Green | Green has written for the (London) Independent Magazine, the (London) Spectator, and the New Yorker

E. Annie Proulx was already 57 when her first novel, "Postcards," was published in 1992. Before that, she had churned out free-lance articles about cider, lions, canoeing and mice; she had written short stories for Esquire; she had founded a monthly newspaper called Behind the Times; she had raised three sons and divorced three husbands. "Postcards" was an unexpected sensation. Critics called it "beautiful," "mesmerizing" and "astonishingly accomplished." Fellow authors honored her with the PEN/Faulkner Award, a $15,000 prize that had never been won by a woman. For good measure, Proulx also landed a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Proulx's second novel, "The Shipping News," is a black comedy about Quoyle, an endearing loser whose father used to toss him into brooks and lakes. Proulx describes Quoyle's childhood superbly in the novel's opening pages, summing up years of misery in a few painfully vivid images: " . . . brother Dick, the father's favorite, pretended to throw up when Quoyle came into the room, hissed 'Snotface, Ugly Pig, Warthog, Stupid, Stinkbomb, . . . Greasebag,' pummeled and kicked until Quoyle curled, hands over head, sniveling, on the linoleum."

Quoyle drops out of school, moves into a rented trailer, and distributes vending machine candy before stumbling into journalism. He writes so badly that his colleagues call him a "lobotomized moron." Seduced by a nymphomaniac named Petal Bear, Quoyle gets married and experiences four weeks of bliss. Petal spends the next six years cuckolding him. She even stars in a pornographic movie, elegantly disguising herself with a mask made from a potato chip bag.

As if this were not enough, Quoyle loses his job and Petal abducts his children. After selling the kids to a pornographer for $7,000, Petal dies in a car crash. All of these events occur in the first 30 pages of the novel. The rest of the book traces Quoyle's attempt to seize control of his life. Now in his mid-30s, he must come to terms with the loss of his wife, find a girlfriend, learn to write properly and generally try to become less oafish.

Quoyle's first step is to emigrate from Upstate New York to Newfoundland, a rugged island off the coast of Canada. He finds a job there as a reporter at the Gammy Bird, a newspaper specializing in stories of sexual abuse. His editor, amused by typographical errors, sabotages everyone's articles. In one report, the phrase "Burmese sawmill owners" becomes "Burnoosed sawbill awnings." Quoyle writes about ships and about gruesome car wrecks.

Proulx has visited Newfoundland frequently since she first traveled there in 1987 to fish for trout. What fascinates her about the islands is the way its traditional lifestyle has come under threat. Quoyle's editor, Jack Buggit, laments, "the fishing's went down, down, down, 40 years sliding into nothing, the . . . goddamn Canada government giving fishing rights to every country on the face of the earth, but regulating us out of business." Buggit also rails against "bloody Greenpeace" for destroying the livelihood of local seal-bashers. Proulx explored a similar historical process in "Postcards," describing decline of an old farming family in New England.

Proulx captures the flavor of Newfoundland as convincingly as if she were born there. She writes about the perilous climate, the xenophobia, the skills of boat-builders, the art of skinning a seal, the dangers of the sea and the recipe for flipper pie. She depicts quirky islanders who embellish their life stories and daydream about moving to Florida. She also has an ear for evocative place names, some of which she has invented: she writes of Little Despond and Desperate Cove, the Tickle Motel and the Flying Squid Gift & Lunchstop.

In various interviews, Proulx has said that she feels liberated now that she can afford to write nothing but novels. "All these stories," she has said, "were just bottled up inside me, waiting to get out. Now writing is sheer play." Proulx--who has been known to write for 18 hours at a stretch--does seem to be inexhaustibly inventive. "The Shipping News" is brimming with eccentric characters and rich subplots: an Englishman named Nutbeem builds a boat, sails the Atlantic and is shipwrecked in Newfoundland; Quoyle's aunt names her dog after a woman with whom she has had a tragic love affair.

A number of characters and subplots appear in the novel for no particular reason. Some readers will find these digressions charming since they give the book a leisurely, meandering quality. Others, like me, will find parts of the novel aimless and slightly dull.

Another flaw of the book is that some of the main characters remain superficial. We never understand Quoyle's aunt, his new girlfriend or his children. In fact, Quoyle himself often seems a distant and confusing figure. However, Proulx's use of language is so fresh that you rarely notice such problems. After all, who else would describe a face looking "like cottage cheese clawed with a fork"?

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