MINK RIVER by Brian Doyle


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The prosaic and the spiritual merge in a portrait of life in a small Oregon town.

Doyle’s debut novel makes heavy demands on the reader’s capacity to suspend disbelief: In the Pacific Coast village of Neawanaka, a crow is an intimate confidante; a bear kindly steps in to save a human life; and the nature of time is somehow lurking in the nearby mountains. The humans who inhabit this place are earthbound folk, though, and Doyle’s main point is to show how the mystical can influence otherwise ordinary lives. The novel features more than a dozen characters, though Doyle spends most of his time on just a handful: Billy and George, aging co-workers at the Department of Public Works; Owen, a repair-shop owner who consults regularly with that crow; his wife, Nora, a sculptor; and their young son, Daniel. The book is largely a series of loose, alternating portraits of each resident, and the story isn’t so much plotted as designed to create opportunities for the townsfolk to come together. One thread, for instance, involves Daniel, who suffers a nasty bicycle accident that prompts the residents to bond together to save him. (Even the town doctor has a whiff of weirdness, naming the cigarettes he smokes after the apostles.) Accepting the notion that a crow can deliver the news of the accident and that a bear can be a lifesaver is surprisingly easy; Doyle firmly establishes the off-kilter nature of the town early. It’s much harder, though, to be patient with the author’s persistent overwriting. The logorrhea is intended to give the novel a tone that's both impressionistic and operatic, particularly in passages where Owen muses on his family’s Irish spiritual heritage and Billy recalls local Native-American lore. The book might have worked as a kind of West Coast Winesburg, Ohio, suffused as it is with empathy for working-class residents and family secrets. But as the concluding chapters feature plot turns about a spiritual mountain trek and a gun-toting assailant, the novel's initial home-and-hearth charm dissolves into hackneyed storytelling and grating, run-on sentences.

A victim of sprawling ambition, both in plot and prose.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-87071-585-3
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Oregon State University Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2010


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