Recently finished Brian Doyle‘s lovely fiction debut Mink River, magical realism of the sort you might expect from a book that crosses Irish and coastal Native American stories and styles. It’s rich, delightful, and satisfying and I kept thinking as I read it that if it didn’t turn out to remain so all the way through the end I should be horribly disappointed.
I wasn’t. Every time I thought the storylines might get too plot-less, or the interweaving (sentence to sentence, in some sections) might unravel, or the lush repetition might overwhelm, what needed to happen happened, in some unexpected and wonderfully blooming way.
Mink River is set in a town on the Oregon coast, not, as Doyle explains at the beginning, “an especially stunning town, stunningtownwise” — there are
no houses crying out to be on the cover of a magazine that no one actually reads anyway and the magazine ends up in the bathroom and then is cut to ribbons for a fourth-grade collage project that uses a jar of rubber cement that was in the drawer by the back stairs by the old shoebox and the jar of rubber cement is so old that you secretly wonder if it fermented or a mouse died in it or what.
One way to put it is that the rest of the book tells you what the town is.
There are more holy horses and holy countries than we will ever know, he would say. The way to find those countries is by telling stories. You can eat stories if you have to, he would say. A story is a very good thing to eat. If you have a true story and some good water you will be all right, he would say.
True enough. The philosophizing talking crow works, the Department of Public Works (which, among other things, preserves history, repairs marriages, counts insects, and gives haircuts) works, the Puccini-loving cop works, the doctor who allows himself to smoke only 12 cigarettes a day (each named for and characteristic of one of the apostles) works, and all the other things that shouldn’t work work.
And so, Mink River is joining my Northwest Reading List. Here’s a selection of my top NW fiction/non-fiction picks (poetry to come later):
Honey in the Horn by H.L. Davis. 1935 Pulitzer-winning coming-of-age story set in the Oregon wilderness. One of the first ‘western’ novels to eschew romantic stereotyping in favor of the real thing. Colorful characters and vibrant landscapes abound. Lots of old coots and peculiar tales and lively language.
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey. Actually I think the staff pick recommendations in that link at Powell’s sums it up beautifully. Kesey’s novel centers around a lumber strike in an Oregon town, and around one family in particular. It’s been maybe ten years since I read this book but many of the scenes in it live vividly in my mind still. And I think I too, like the Powell’s reviewer, struggled a bit through the first so-many pages, but damn sticking with it paid off.
The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet’s Autobiography by Richard Hugo. This is a collection of essays by Hugo about his life (growing up in Seattle, as a bombardier in Italy, and settling eventually in Montana) and his work. Hugo is an excellent writer, and both his poetry and his life are closely tied to place. If you have any interest at all in ‘the writing life’ and/or in Hugo’s poetry and/or in growing up as an outsider out west, this is a very rewarding read.
The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald. Published 1945. MacDonald moved from Seattle to a small farm on the Olympic Peninsula pretty much without a clue as to what living on a farm with no running water, no electricity, and, shall we say, eclectic, neighbors would entail. Her retelling of the experience is hilarious and endearing. (MacDonald also wrote the delightful Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle children’s books.)
And a bonus NW mystery recommendation. Earl Emerson’s Mac Fontana series (first one is Black Hearts & Slow Dancing) are standard but solid murder mysteries with good NW flavor. Mac, a big city firefighter who moves to a small town in Washington with his young son to act as sheriff and to escape some old wounds, is a compelling guy and the town has a set of realistic small-town ‘characters.’