Monday, February 22, 2016

Book Review: "Mink River" by Brian Doyle

Friends have been encouraging me to pick up anything by Brian Doyle literally for years. Having finally followed their excellent advice, I'm kicking myself for having waited so long.

It's no wonder that Brian Doyle's previous publications were poetry. That literary background shows itself clearly in the gorgeous, lyrical prose that takes on not only the glowingly rendered images but even the flow and feel of life on the Pacific coast. The seasons blend into one another, wet and dry and cold and not-so-cold, like the characters' lives. Everyone is connected, if not directly by close interpersonal relationships then at least by a few degrees of separation or simply by virtue of living in the same small town. That's the way things go with small-town living, and Doyle captures it perfectly in his fictional location along the Mink River.

While everyone in the book is connected, and Doyle treats us to all of their perspectives at least briefly (even down to the life of a miscarried fetus), Worried Man and Cedar are most closely identifiable as the novel's main protagonists. They are the center point around which the rest of the characters' lives revolve, and it's no wonder, considering that they make up the local Department of Public Works. According to them, Public Works means everything from keeping the city sewer unclogged to tracking down missing pets to recording stories about the town's history for future generations. Worried Man's personal passion is the concept of time. All of these, they argue as they eat salmonberries and split two beers for lunch, are in the public interest and therefore public works.

A child is injured, a marriage is troubled, a young man is beaten and a young girl rescued. An old man dies, a woman creates, a dream is found and journeys are taken. All of these things happen over the course of the story, but it's how they happen that contains and reveals the true magic behind Doyle's talent with words. The flow of characters' thoughts and observations blend with the way the world moves around them, with how they touch and impact other things and people. Doyle captures this through the use of different languages, forestalling traditional use of punctuation, and jumping into characters' heads to capture their emotions and perspectives firsthand. The resulting depiction of life in a small town is truly a work of art, and accurate in a way that perhaps only a poet can capture.

The element of magical realism at work in this novel recalls the Native American traditions that both the author and characters frequently reference. Not only are nature, animal and ancestral spirits present (sometimes physically, as with a female bear and the various spirit guides who make appearances) but one even becomes a central character. Moses the crow, taught to speak by an elderly nun after he fell from his nest too early, was by far my favorite character. His unique blend of mischief and dedication to those he loves, his blend of defiance, humor, and acceptance made him a completely lovable archetype of the Native American legends of Raven. Of all the characters whom I came to love over the course of the book, which includes pretty much the entire cast in some way or another, Moses is the one I loved the best.

If you're a homesick expat from the Pacific Northwest, or a curious soul from elsewhere, read "Mink River" by Brian Doyle. It's as close to home-on-a-page as I've ever come, and I'm a lifelong resident of the Washington/Oregon coast. You will not regret picking up this book. Currently Brian Doyle has two other novels, "The Plover" (named for the fishing boat in "Mink River") and "Martin Marten", to his name and other books of poetry as well. You can find all of them, which you should do, at your favorite local independent bookstore.

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