The Shipping News
By E. Annie Proulx
Original Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons
(Macmillan Publishing Company)
Current Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Bob Shacochis writes:
Such a surprise: the dark gleaming humor, like a serpent in the garden of Annie Proulx’s luscious prose and bleak landscapes. The chiaroscuro of emotional play. Characters simultaneously idiosyncratic and archetypal. The don’t-bother- me- now- I-don’t- care- if- the- house-is-on-fire seductive force of the narrative–
Rather than add another gram to the tonnage of glorious praise The Shipping News has earned and deserved, I thought I’d just gossip a little bit, in an Annie-centric way.
In the spring of 1993, I was sitting in the office of Barbara Grossman, at the time the editor-in-chief of Scribner. I nodded nervously as Barbara described Scribner's plans for the big launch of my third book, a novel, Swimming in the Volcano. This and that and oh, we’re going to showcase you at the ABA this summer in Los Angeles. Barbara was renowned as a keen judge of literary horse flesh and she had, as editor in chief at Scribner, some damn fine racers in her stable. One in particular had infatuated me, though I had never met her. Annie Proulx. Tom Jenks, Rust Hills’ assistant at Esquire in the late 80s, had introduced me to Proulx’s unforgettable short stories. Grossman had given me a copy of Annie’s first novel, Postcards, the paperback soon vanishing from my house as it was passed around to one’s tribe with the demand, You’ve got to read this.
So...Barbara was my editor, Barbara was Annie’s editor, I was publishing my third book, Annie was publishing her third book, I was going to the ABA in Los Angeles. Annie was, what, exactly?
Is Annie coming to Los Angeles? I asked Barbara.
No, Barbara said. We’ll take her next time. She’s not ready yet.
So I went to the ABA, medicated, for the first and last time, on anti-depressants.
In the autumn of 1993, the phone rang and it was Barbara Grossman, hyperventilating. Swimming in the Volcano is a finalist for the National Book Award, she gasped. After another sentence or two I felt compelled to remark on the incongruent tone of anguish in her voice. What’s the problem? I asked. There wasn’t a problem, really, just a bit of conflicted feelings–Annie had been named a finalist as well.
My reaction was, I would like to imagine, perfectly human and identical, I would guess, to the other finalists named that day–as soon as I could, I began reading the books my own work would be competing against, and began the handicapping. Even before reading The Shipping News, I was thrilled that Annie was a finalist, and even more so for the selection of my friend Richard Powers, who, if you can bear my sincerity, should have been given, instead of me, the National Book Award for First Fiction in 1985 for his brilliant debut novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. Or the National Book Award for Fiction in 1991 for The Goldbug Variations. Anyway, the novel that Richard was finally nominated for, Operation Wandering Soul, was a challenging, in some ways tortured, read. I didn’t know the other two finalists, Amy Bloom and Thom Jones, but as I read their books I thought Bravo! But I also had to acknowledge that short story collections, despite my own weird experience, were historically also-rans, unless the collection was a selection representing the best of a life’s work.
As a betting man, I had reduced the field: Annie Proulx and myself. I am not so much of an imbecile that I didn’t crave the audience the award would bring, even if it was perhaps true my novel did not quite measure up to the best in the competition, but after reading The Shipping News, it was clear, at least to me, the conclusion was foregone–Annie’s second novel was best of show.
Annie, on the other hand, had a different opinion. A letter arrived in the mail from Vermont, the envelope stamped with a hand-pressed image of a fish. She had just finished reading Swimming in the Volcano, she said, and she was throwing in the towel. (Thank you, Annie, for that very kind and generous self-delusion.)
I first met Annie Proulx the night before the awards ceremony. It was pouring rain and a car came to collect both of us and my wife at the Dorset Hotel to take us for drinks with our agents, Gail Hochman and Liz Darhansoff, and our editor, Barbara Grossman, before we had to be delivered to an auditorium for our five-minute readings. My wife and I both remember, contrary to what we had been led to believe, how hilarious Annie was during the ride, how shiningly articulate, how wonderful and prickly at the same time. At the bar, I only remember how uncomfortable Barbara Grossman was, and feeling no sympathy for her predicament. All I remember of the reading was being introduced to a very stiff Amy Bloom, who has become a lifelong friend, and Thom Jones reading for five long minutes about diarrhea.
You know what happened the following evening at the National Book Awards. What you might not know and, given her literary track record since then, might find impossible to believe, is that Annie was genuinely shocked–and moved to tears–that The Shipping News had just informed the world, as it informed Annie herself, that she was in fact ready. That she was, and will remain forever, one of America’s literary lions.
Bob Shacochis won the National Book Award for First Work of Fiction for Easy in the Islands. He was a Finalist in 1993 for Swimming in the Volcano and has also served as a National Book Awards judge.
Mark Sarvas writes:
One is hard-pressed to find as unlikely a hero as Quoyle, the protagonist of E. Annie Proulx’s magisterial 1994 prize-winner, The Shipping News. Can you recall as unpromising a beginning as this?
Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.
But heroic he is, soldiering on with resolute kindness and decency despite near bottomless pain – the suicide of his parents, the death of Petal, his unfaithful wife. Trying to escape his grief, he arrives with his daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, in Newfoundland where Proulx will tie him up in knots en route to peace and happiness.
It has been – astonishingly – fifteen years since I read the novel but its memory is undimmed (if bruised by a wan film adaptation by Lasse Hallström), its glorious set pieces still vivid before my eyes. There is the remarkable family house on Quoyle Point that he restores with the help of his steadfast aunt. There are his dispatches as he finds his way covering the shipping news for the local newspaper, the wonderfully named Gammy Bird. (Proulx is magnificent with names: Nutbeem, Jack Buggit, Billy Pretty, names I didn’t need to go back and look up.) There are the remarkable local characters Proulx deploys in Quoyle’s orbit. And, of course, there is Wavey Prowse, with whom Quoyle gradually rediscovers his capacity for love.
The music of Proulx’s prose is distinctive, its clipped rhythms, its occasionally outré adjectives. It’s the rough music you’d hear in a conch shell. And she knits the entire thing together with beautiful reprints from Ashley’s Book of Knots, which became 1994’s must-have gift for the literary set. (I remember tracking down a copy for my mother - $65 at the time.) The knots organize the book beautifully but they also anchor the palpability of Proulx’s seafaring town, a place to which my memory happily returns on the occasion of this remembrance.
Mark Sarvas’ most recent novel is Harry, Revised.
Fiction Finalists that Year:
- Amy Bloom for Come to Me
- Thom Jones for The Pugilist at Rest
- Richard Powers for Operation Wandering Soul
- Bob Shacochis for Swimming in the Volcano
Fiction Judges that Year:
Phyllis Rose, Sven Birkerts, George Garrett, James A. McPherson,
The Year in Literature:
- A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
- E. Annie Proulx was born Edna Annie Proulx in Norwich, Connecticut. She has published most of her work simply as Annie Proulx, but she has also used E. Annie Proulx and E.A. Proulx.
- The Shipping News, Proulx’s second novel, won the Pulitzer Prize the year after it won the National Book Award, and it was made into a film in 2001.
- Her short story “Brokeback Mountain” was adapted as an award-winning film, which was released in 2005.
- E. Annie Proulx's Wikipedia Entry
- An Interview with Annie Proulx
- Exclusive PJH Interview: At close range with Annie Proulx
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
By Matthew Testa
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