Openings We Love: Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News

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In tenth grade, an English teacher used an excerpt from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News to illustrate some point I have long since forgotten. But Proulx’s prose stayed with me. I sought the book out immediately after class (beating all the other cool teens in my rush to the library, I am sure), and now I re-read the first few pages whenever I want a reminder of the power of language.

The first few pages are haunting; the first few lines are transcendent: they have worked themselves into the folds of my brain. I think about them while driving, while taking a walk, while trying to remind myself how to write:

Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.

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.

What exquisite detail! What word choice! The missing “he” in “he stumbled through his twenties”!  The “spangled” in “hive-spangled”! The “shuffle” of upstate towns; the “roaring” gut; the “ham knuckle” and “buttered spuds”! What is a “ham knuckle”? I don’t know, but I can never forget it.

Quoyle, our unlucky protagonist, soon meets Partridge, a slim, sharp-witted, African-American man—the veritable opposite of himself—at a laundromat, where Quoyle has just ruined his “Big Man shirts” with ink. Partridge advises him to use “hot salt and talcum” powder as a remedy and, “Quoyle said he would try it. His voice wavered. Partridge was astonished to see the heavy man’s colorless eyes enlarged with tears. For Quole was a failure at loneliness, yearned to be gregarious, to know his company was a pleasure to others.”

This slim paragraph tells us so much about Quoyle. We learn that a laundry mishap can bring him to tears. We learn, even more poignantly, that the kindness of a stranger can bring him to tears. We feel acutely Quoyle’s alienation, his grasping at human connection. We learn his shameful truth: that he wishes that he were the type of person who could attract others to him. We learn that he is not unaware of his own failings; indeed, he is heartbreakingly perceptive and yet can do nothing to overcome them. Crying over spoiled laundry will not bring him the sort of friendship and admiration he so ardently desires, but still, he wavers and tears.

I remember reading this at fifteen—a poor, shy, awkward Pakistani girl, being raised in a strict Muslim family, while growing up in white, affluent Arlington, Virginia. When I read those first few pages, I had the sudden feeling that I knew Quoyle, that I had a glimpse into his beating heart. I, too, was aware of the great distance that stood between me and my peers. Reading about Quoyle stumbling through his life, twisted by sadness and want, made me feel less alone. This need to feel--however briefly--less alone, may be the simplest, most elemental, reason for reading and writing, but, given how often I return to the opening of The Shipping News, it may also be one of the most powerful.