Behind a news desk, the unlikely hero

April 27, 1993|By Susan M. Barbieri | Susan M. Barbieri,Orlando Sentinel

There are some heroes in literature who fall under the heading of loser-heroes -- those slightly pathetic, questing characters in the tradition of Saul Bellow's Tommy Wilhelm or Arthur Miller's Willy Loman. We accompany them on their valiant search for happiness, and we desperately want them to prevail.

That's because there is a little Tommy and Willy in each of us. There's a little bit of Quoyle, too.

Quoyle is the main character in E. Annie Proulx's outstanding new novel, "The Shipping News." Quoyle is the quintessential loser-hero -- an ungainly man with a "head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair," and "features as bunched as ** kissed fingertips."

Genetics has cursed him with a giant's chin, and as a child he invented strategies to deflect stares. Throughout Ms. Proulx's story, we know something has made Quoyle uncomfortable whenever he reflexively brings right hand to chin.

Quoyle is a third-rate newspaper hack who sees the banalities of life as headlines: Man Walks Across Parking Lot at Moderate Pace. Women Talk of Rain. Phone Rings in Empty Room. Ms. Proulx so adeptly captures the atmosphere of the small-town newsroom, you can smell the deadline perspiration and see the old coffee rings and grease stains on battered desks.

Quoyle is in love with a cruel and promiscuous woman. When retribution comes, we silently cheer. Petal's death sets his destiny in motion.

His aunt has decided to return to their ancestral home in Newfoundland, on a remote coastal promontory, Quoyle's Point. She persuades Quoyle to pack up his little girls, Bunny and Sunshine, and start anew.

The town of Killick-Claw must be one of earth's most rugged places. Boats are the preferred mode of transportation, since the climate and terrain are unkind to wheeled vehicles. Quoyle, naturally, knows nothing whatsoever about boats.

Nonetheless, he lands a job with the local weekly, the Gammy Bird, covering the shipping news. The Gammy Bird is the paper of record -- if your main interests are lurid sexual-abuse stories and bloody car crashes. If there are no good crashes one week, no matter. There are always old crash photos in the file to use.

While his aunt works to renovate the old Quoyle Point house, which is lashed to the inhospitable rock with giant cables that sing in strong wind, Quoyle works beside a newsman named Nutbeem and befriends harbor master Diddy Shovel. He develops a taste for the local delicacy, cod cheeks, and learns to pilot a craft of dubious seaworthiness.

Ms. Proulx's affection for the character is unmistakable, and affection is the element that gives the pathetic a comic shading rather than a tragic one. "The Shipping News" is alternately funny and poignant, loaded with rich metaphors worthy of discussion in any modern American lit class.

Life, we learn, is a series of complicated sailor's knots. There is the "rolling hitch," "strangle knot," the "slippery hitch" and, of course, "the lover's knot." These are Quoyle's passages.

E. Annie Proulx, whose first novel, "Postcards," recently won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Literature, has created a modern literary classic with "The Shipping News." Make room for Quoyle next to Tommy Wilhelm, Willy Loman and all of our other favorite fictional loser-heroes.


Title: "The Shipping News."

Author: E. Annie Proulx.

Publisher: Scribner's.

Length, price: 337 pages, $20.

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