Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Magical realism on the Oregon coast


Neawanaka is a little town on the Oregon coast. The logging industry has pretty much died, the shingle factory is going out of business, and not many people fish commercially anymore. But in spite of its hardships, the town at the mouth of the Mink River is a magical place, where crows speak poetry, black bears rescue children, and people while away their hours telling stories, rather than watching television or playing computer games.

Brian Doyle's novel Mink River is a weird and charming novel that tells the tale of Neawananka. Skipping from character to character, it explores the town's geography and its wildlife, its myths and tales, its dark woods and flashing streams.
The book doesn't have a driving plot: it's a portrait of one summer in the life of the town, and the stories that people tell there. Two Public Works employees interpret their mandate very broadly, meddling in people’s lives. A boy whizzes everywhere at full speed on his bicycle, until an accident brings him to a stop. Two teenagers love each other, and have decisions to make. A sculptor suffers from depression. A cop listens to Puccini. A man beats his son.

Doyle's prose and punctuation are idiosyncratic. He plays with words, as when he ascribes to two boys in a high school classroom "general recklessness and boneheadery and lazitude and punishness and detentionery." This will either annoy or please you. Those aren't real words -- but we recognize those boys, right?

I enjoyed the rhythm of Doyle's storytelling, even when it devolves into long lists of sensations, like this amazing description of the local repair shop:

"Think of all the rich dark male smells you have ever liked, the smells that remind you of your dad ... Paint in cans that have been imperfectly sealed so a touch of the smell leaks out, and flat whippy paint-stirring sticks half-coated in dried paint atop the cans ... And the smells of sawn cedar and maple and fir boards. Ashes. Varnish. Plywood. Cigars. Somewhere on a shelf a redolent piece of redwood. Sweat. Boots. Oil. A hint of gasoline as if it had been spilled quite a long time ago and cleaned up meticulously but the room remembers when it happened. Rubber. Sawdust. The handled smell of tools. Liniment. Coffee. The brown smell of boxes and cardboard. Beer. The vacation-cabin smell of pine. Oiled saws. Old newspapers. Woodsmoke. The burnt-wire smell of old radio and television tubes. Turpentine. The grandmotherly smell of old upholstery rising warmly from the sagging couch in the corner. Apples. Wet clothes. Bread. Crow."

Full disclosure: I know someone who thinks Mink River is inaccurate and pretentiously-written. What can I say? I disagree. I think that Mink River is enchanting - not a swift page-turner, but a meandering read filled with delightful images. If you're intrigued, read Mink River and decide for yourself.

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