Monday, March 25, 2013
I know that there are people who would not love Brian Doyle's novel Mink River. Some might find too much detail in the cataloging of creation, the lists of berries, the inventory of a workshop, the supplies packed for a journey. Some might find a novel filled not just with the thoughts of people, but those of birds and bears as well, to be too fantastic. Some people do not love the flow of words, the shape of them in the mouth, the way the words tumble together to form sentences, ideas, stories and worlds. But if you can love a place painted with words, a town of filled not with characters but with real people, many of whom you'd be proud and happy to count as friends, then let Brian Doyle tell you of this place, a town on along the Mink River, next to the ocean on the Oregon Coast.
The town is Neawanaka, a town built from what comes from the trees and what comes from the sea. Most of the people of the town are either Salish natives or Irish immigrants, two traditions rich in the telling of tales, and the tales and people combine on the banks of the Mink River in ways that are often wonderful and wise. There is the old nun who raises a young crow and teaches him to talk, the old men whose Department of Public Works studies everything including the nature of time. There is the young boy who crashes his bicycle, the family trying to survive via farming and fishing, the man named Cedar pulled mostly dead and then reborn from the river, the artist struggling to create and struggling against the black depression threatening to bury her. There are lives in this town, fascinating, intricate wonderful lives.
It is hard to pull a single passage from this novel to give you a sense of its flavor. The problem is akin to that of describing a river by handing you a single glass of its water. This is perhaps a problem that Worried Man and Cedar from the Neawanaka Department of Public Works could study and solve and I wish that they could help me with this right now. But I will do my best with this small example, this tiny bit where the bear has been summoned to pull Daniel up from the ravine where he has crashed his bicycle:
"The bear is confused and excited and angry. She cradles the boy in her huge dark arms and rumbles uphill right through the bushes. This animal is broken, she thinks. It smells bloody. The blood makes her hungry. She remembers the ground squirrels. The word for ground squirrel in the language of bears is meat in holes. The night is as black as she can ever remember. Daniel’s braids flop and swing. She has never touched a human being before although she has seen and smelled many of them, all different flavors and sizes. In the dark language of bears the word for human being is killer brother."
Mink River is a story of many stories, beautiful, flowing and wise. It is full of the dark language of bears, the wisdom of crows and the wonder of humanity.
Monday, March 11, 2013
For a story to succeed the writer has to grab the reader, either by empathy or interest, and lead them through the twists and turns of the tale. In the case of Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill had my interest from the start, but it took him longer to engage my empathy. Judas Coyne, the aging heavy-metal rocker who is the protagonist of this story, is not a character one instantly warms to. Jude collects gruesome artifacts of death and also has a habit of using and discarding a succession of young goth girl friends, girls whose true names are too much of a bother so he calls them by their states of origin. He sent his last girlfriend, Florida, away when she became too troublesome and now she's dead, but even before Florida's train had left the state, Jude had picked up her replacement, a girl he calls Georgia, at a strip club. Hey, life goes on.
But sooner or later, the dead catch up...
I was hooked, like Jude, by the ad on the internet. It read:
I will "sell" my stepfather's ghost to the highest bidder. . . .
The tangible bit is a dead man's suit and what Jude thinks he's buying from a stranger is a joke, another item for his collection of the macabre. But when Jude clicks the "Buy Now" button what he gets is a suit that comes in a black, heart-shaped box and genuine ghost. And the ghost and the package did not come from a stranger.
It took me a while to make it through Heart-Shaped Box because the horror in this novel is truly horrifying. Craddock McDermott, the vengeful ghost, is absolutely scary as hell. The battle between Jude, Georgia, and the dead man becomes an epic road trip and like all good horror, I honestly had no clue as to whether or not anyone would survive. But somewhere along this long dark road, Joe Hill shifted the story into overdrive and I found myself caring not just about the puzzle of the Heart-Shaped Box, but about Jude and Georgia and what had really happened to Florida.
Joe Hill certainly knows horror and he writes it well. But Joe writes the living even better than he does the dead. He makes words into people, people that you root for. And that's not horrible, that's wonderful. And so is Heart-Shaped Box.