An Oregon Coastal Town, A Talking Crow…

I meant to write a review of the sprawling novel of America’s Oregon
Coast, Mink River by Brian Doyle over
Thanksgiving, because it was what I was grateful for.   As the year ends, I realize I’m thinking
about it still.  Grateful for it, still.
Doyle’s narrative style is off-putting (at first), but eventually one
that wins you over by sheer earnestness.
The narrative is episodic and, what you would call in the dramatic arts,
an ensemble piece.  If there is a
protagonist it is the town of 500 residents itself called Neawanaka on the
northwest coast.  The cast of characters as
one would expect in an outing like this is many:  the village doctor who smokes the same number
of cigarettes each day, each smoke the name of one of the 12 apostles (plus
Matthias who replaced Judas); A working intuitive named “Worried Man,” one of
two who runs the tiny (and comprehensive) Department of Public Works; his
married daughter who therapeutically carves massive wood chunks and is named
“No Horses”; the owner/bar tender of the local watering whole who pines for a
change in career, a change of a scenery; a crow named “Moses,” who talks and
has, literally, a bird’s eye view of the town; a man who beats his son who is
called “the man who beats his son”; another in hospital called “the man with
thirteen days to live [or twelve…or two, or one…].”
You get the picture.
It’s all rather disorienting at first, not unlike a long Russian novel
is disorienting with its many characters with multiple names.  But in the end, you love these folks,
animated by their Irish, and mixed Irish-other (including Native American)
heritage, who in a lesser work might be overtly referred to as the “salt of the
earth.”  You love the town and the smell
of the alder and pine burns off the pages when it’s not, in the form of a log,
falling off a truck and going through a windshield and killing a man named Red
Hugh O Donnell, whose adult children, one a fisherman who is ambivalent about
the sea, and his sister who has a drinking problem aren’t exactly sure how to
process the death of their brutal father except, for the time being, to go back
to the sea and drink more, respectively.
This is not to say
there is no plot.  There are several
extended questions that inter-weave:
Will the boy Daniel who fell off a cliff on his bicycle walk again?  Will his mother be able to recover from “the
unshakable sense of herself so shaken”; Will the opera-obsessed cop be able to
capture the child-abusing fugitive arrested through Worried Man’s premonitions
but who then escaped?  Will Moses still
be a crow if he can’t fly?  How will
there ever be enough money to survive in a town whose lumber industry has
So there are these
overlapping circles of human drama throughout, and that is stabilizing.  Compelling as story.  But then there’s Doyle’s experimentation
which violates all kinds of novel-writing rules—at least the rules you might
read about in a How-To Write book.  His
prose is purplish, excessive, and uses stacked up adjectives and nouns, and quotes
from William Blake as if its creator is in a nursery, gleefully manipulating
building blocks for the naked thrill of seeing how tall he can make it.  Punctuation at times goes to hell.  Sentences run on and on…and on.  Narrative threads run the risk of getting lost
right up until the end.  This stuff careens
all over the place and is, I would imagine if it surfaced in a graduate writing
seminar, be deemed at minimum as “undisciplined,” “overwrought.”
But it’s also
quite wonderful, perhaps the poster child of how inspired, visceral writing
trumps craft…or more accurately, perhaps, becomes its own craft through its own
internal logic.  Known for his spiritual
nonfiction, sometimes overtly Catholic, Doyle has a written a work with a beating
heart that resonates with the perpetual sea that alternately nuzzles and
violates the shore of this struggling, heart-broken town.   And in the end, Mink River re-ups the author’s signature.  This book will make you swoon with the
relentlessness of life—as relentless as the mercurial sea—and the terror of the
dark, damp woods.   There are moments of awe
and exquisite recognition that require that the reader put down the book, and
quiet his or her heart.  One of these
episodes describe a fetus miscarrying  from
a swimmer in the upper reaches of the Mink and how it flows seaward and, like
the personified protoplasm (or, if you’re Catholic, I suppose, like the person
that it is) it sees and feels and glories, however briefly, in the wide, wide
world before it plunges into the collective unconscious of the wet universe.
Doyle’s brand may
be spiritualized naturalism, admittedly rawer than that of the English
romantics’, his rhetorical style one that adds fifteen adjectives or
twenty-five nouns in a single, micro description.  But structurally, Mink River turns on the
author’s periodic “checking in” of his unruly cast.  As with the embryo flowing downriver, we get
a sort of catalogue of what’s going on, the bird’s eye view of what everyone’s
doing or thinking at one particular moment.
To wit:
Rain in and on and over and through the town, gentle and persistent,
gray and gentle, green and insistent, thorough and quiet, respectful and
watchful.  On Worried Man and Cedar in
the Department of Public Works where they hunch over a table strewn and
scattered with maps.  On Declan
staggering along the beach to the hulk of his boat.  On Michael the cop as he drives gently
through town humming Puccini and thinking of what to make for dinner for his
wife Sara and their girls.  On Sara as
she spades their garden with the two little girls who are digging as fast and
furiously as possible looking for worms because their daddy says if they find
fifty worms he will take them fishing tomorrow morning rain or shine.  On No Horses walking in the hills, up the old
quarry road and through the forest and back along the old quarry road once
twice three times.  On the young female
bear two miles upriver from the village where she found a dead elk calf…. (p.
 These surveys regularly appear but themed not just through behavior,
but through thoughts, through fears and through prayers and dreams.
In this way, and
in others more subtle, Doyle not only brings you along as every good novelist
should, but plumbs the depths of his little site by broadening his canvas again
and again.  More accurately, he draws a
broader and broader diameter of circles out and out, then back in and in until the
gumbo—the ennui of the quotidian life, mythologies religious and otherwise,
addictions, despair, tragedy, economic survival, sensuality, coitus and how one
dies–convincingly converges into a satisfying whole.
Sort of like life.
Sort of not.  Like a river town in
the northwest where the forest and the sea seem to be having one long, even
eternal conversation—sometimes an argument–while the town’s denizens still,
somehow, are living rather than just performing a life–thinking about or
actually cupping one another’s faces with their hands to comfort and connect in
any one moment.  And that is, finally,
what makes the town of Neawanaka and Mink
so remarkable:  it countermands
the narcissism of our age, and of our contemporary literature—so that life
lived is just that:  a life that is
lived.  Lives reflected in Doyle’s
luminous prose through story in its most numinous sense.  Story in the form of a novel that merits my
Mink River
by Brian Doyle
OSU Press
320 pp
Brian Doyle is the author of many books, including the novels Mink River and The Plover; The Grail, his account of a year in a pinot noir vineyard in Oregon; and The Wet Engine, a memoir about his infant son’s heart surgery and the young doctor who saved his life. He edits Portland Magazine at the University of Portland.

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