“The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on.” So said Annie Proulx last November in a politically charged speech at the National Book Awards.
Her second novel, The Shipping News, published early in 1993, makes for a heartfelt illustration of that quest. Few people on Earth are as put upon, it seems, as Quoyle, Proulx’s protagonist, a man, clumsy and shambling, who is rapidly sliding into middle age. Living in a small upstate town, he sleeps with pretty much the first woman who will have him, and it’s an ugly ride. It’s uglier for Petal Bear, his wife, who “was crosshatched with longings, but not, after they were married, for Quoyle.” She comes to a spectacular end in a car wreck, though, leaving Quoyle to care for their two young girls. Jobless, alone, and rootless, he packs them up and heads for ancestral territory, the rocky coast of Newfoundland, a rugged place that breeds tough and eccentric characters.
Quoyle, as tightly wound and fearful as his name suggests, has few discernible talents, but the one trait that he has in spades serves him well as a journalist—namely, his ability to elicit talk out of anyone, stranger or familiar. There’s something about Quoyle that inspires trust, which in turn produces “waterfalls of opinion, reminiscence, recollection, theorizing, guesstimating, exposition, synopsis, and explication.” He finds a place to put that skill to work as a reporter for the local paper, whose chief concern is, yes, the ships that go steaming by on the way to someplace else, anywhere but the stormbound village of Killick-Claw, where, Quoyle discovers, “by January it had always been winter.”
Quoyle listens, and people talk, filling the air with wonderful stories of remembrance, of a past marked by odd stories and things from the old places (“the ’orses and cows are broke, though there’s a number of the saucers,” says one old woman of a set of dishes her grandmother brought from England). Gradually, he talks, too, inspired by as memorable a pirate crew of journalists as any big-city paper could sport. “We run a front-page photo of a car wreck every week, whether we have a wreck or not,” says the editor, which naturally sets Quoyle to remembering why he’d headed to the easternmost point of the continent in the first place.
Unexpectedly, though, he finds redemption in a tentative dance of love with a widowed woman. He grows up. He becomes a fine father for his children and a thoughtful caretaker for the last of his tribe, even as Proulx sneaks bits from Hawthorne and Melville into the proceedings, reminding us of the great wheel of story. He finds reasons to be alive, and joy in the bargain.
Everyone needs love—and, Proulx writes memorably in the last line of the book, “it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.” And everyone of goodwill deserves a happy ending. Thus the gentle, optimistic message of The Shipping News, a story that gives readers the strength to go on.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.