Saturday, October 1, 2011

Mink River: Interesting piece of Northwest Prose

Mink River by Brian Doyle
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
This was another one of those Multnomah County Library's books labeled "Lucky Day! Hot titles! Available now--2 at a time for 3 weeks." It's the second time in recent weeks I've been lured in like that (the other was the Pat Conroy novel, South of Broad). I guess I am suckered in by thinking I'm the fortunate timing that finds me at the library when these books happen to be available. Pretty funny, eh? I have heard of Brian Doyle--he's the editor of Portland Monthly and has even spoken as a guest speaker at our church--and I like reading literature by Northwest writers, so I thought I'd take a look. Goodreads reviewers give Mink River 4.33 stars, and my friend Jeannette gave it 4 stars. After I read endorsements on the front and back of the book by David James Duncan and Molly Gloss, I had to dive in.

Doyle is a gifted writer, and without his lyrical gifts and the fact that he's well known in Portland literary circles, this book might have had a difficult time finding a publisher. Mink River is a story of a coastal Oregon town, Neawanaka, and its quirky inhabitants. Think "Northern Exposure" in Oregon rather than Alaska (even though that priceless TV series was actually filmed in Washington).

The book begins with a grandfather oral storytelling into a tape recorder for his grandson, and that's the style throughout the book. We follow the richly detailed characters' loves, losses, and lives. Some are known only as "the doctor," "the nun," "the priest," and "the man who sold boxes." The Irish and Native American people's lives are woven carefully together, along with their traditions. Crows and bears speak.

At the beginning of the book, I reveled in the poetic writing and colorful descriptions of the people and the town. I found myself cheering for Worried Man, Cedar, Daniel, Owen, No Horses, and Maple Head. I thought that Mink River would be a suitable modern replacement for Sometimes a Great Notion as the great Oregon novel. But then I got to the middle...and I actually thought about giving up on the novel.

The middle sags with near-complete lack of plot. At best, the plot is secondary to the setting and the characters. But I need a plot in a novel, even a poetic one. Fortunately, he gets back into the loosely plotted story toward the end...just in time to deliver a satisfying ending to these characters' stories.

As the Oregonian put it, "Doyle's storytelling style is one a reader needs to accept, trust, and ride--he has a penchant for quick takes, long sentences, short chapters, and an interjecting narrator. Words are occasionally welded together to get toward something, like the 'bittersweetorangeyellowacidic' taste of a salmonberry. The strength of the novel lies in Doyle's ability to convey the delicious vibrancy of people and the quirky whorls that make life a complex tapestry. He is absolutely enchanted by stories, with the zeal and talent to enchant others."

A few pages from the end of the book, Doyle seems to acknowledge the eccentricity of his writing style...through the words of Moses, the talking crow: "Human people...think that stories have beginnings and middles and ends, but we crow people know that stories just wander on and on and change form and are reborn again and again...stories are not only words, you know. Words are just the clothes that people drape on stories."

Mink River is like a crow story--perhaps that is why Moses the crow is featured on the cover. It's an excellent addition to the Northwest canon, but truth be told, I'm ready to move on to a more traditionally written book!

1 comment:

  1. Hello! I'm a fellow Portlander/book lover and came across your post after writing my own about Mink River. I agree with you that the plot sagged a bit in the middle but the language and characters kept me engrossed throughout!

    Here's my post if you're interested. It's less of a review and more of a reflection inspired by the novel: