Lauretta O'Connor April 8, 2013 - 3:09pm
Once, reading a book on wildflowers, I learned that there was a plant called bastard toadflax. In Brian DoylesMink River, a flawed but wonderful book, the author disgorges such arcane information effortlessly and wholesale, and we learn perhaps more than we want to know about the flora and fauna of the Oregon coast. Yet,Mink Riveris tender, hilarious, original, and outrageous; I loved it in spite of itself. Mr. Doyles shameless love for humanity in all its particularity takes your breath away.Neawanaka is an imaginary town bounded by the ocean, two creeks, and the Mink River. Its people are as ordinary and exceptional as people anywhere else, but Mr. Doyles enormous affection for them brings his characters to life. Billy and May Mahon, a Native American couple, their daughter Nora, her Irish immigrant husband Owen Cooney, and their son, Daniel, are the central characters. Billy, May, and Nora also have Salish (native) names: Worried Man, Maple Head, and No Horses. They are a close family and closely tied to Billys best friend, Cedar, a war veteran with an unknown past who Billy saved from drowning in the Mink River. Billy and Cedar comprise the towns Department of Public Works, whose purview is not only repairing roads and trimming trees but also, in ways large and small, helping people to have better lives. Help is needed in a town down on its luck: factories close, the logging disappears, fish are fewer and smaller, and it rains at least 280 days a year.Mr. Doyle has an Irish lust for language that can seem to overflow the pages. May and Billy sometimes speak and think in their native Salish; Owen speaks Gaelic, his own native language, to Nora and Daniel, so he can hear the beautiful sound of it. And then there is Mr. Doyles passion for the natural world which provides one of the joys of the book: an almost liturgical litany of trees, shrubs, fish, flowers, birds, and animals with which he sees fit to randomly entertain us. If there is a native berrysalmonberry, salal berry, bearberry, shotberry, thimbleberry, snowberryor birdouzel, skimmer, murre, grebe, nighthawkthat he omits to mention, I would be surprised. Yet one of my quibbles with the book is that he sometimes goes overboard, as in a list of all the fish, birds, and animals consumed during the life of a three-year old bear. I wish his editor had wielded a sharper pencil.Mink Riveris much more about character and language than about plot. In fact, the plot is a series of accidents and agonies: a death here, an arrest there, a town picnic, and no small amount of magical reality, which serve to gather us into the lives of the characters. Moses is a crow who aids Billy and Moses in their do-good projects. He fell from the nest as a fledgling and was rescued by a nun whose name we never learn; she not only taught him to speak, but over time she made him a boon companion. Moses recalls their last meal together before the nuns death: they would always have this bronze morning, the bronze triangles of toast between them, the bowl of bronze berries, her left hand on his right foot, his eyes closed, her body shivering, the burble of pigeons on the fire escape the only sound in the room. We hear the voice of Moses, more human than corvid, without skepticism.In an interview, Mr. Doyle admitted to being fairly accused of vast elephantine sentences and passionate overwriting. Even if true, these things only slightly diminish his achievement. When the old nun dies, her soul on its way heavenward gets caught on the blades of a whirring ceiling fan. The town doctor houses the sick and the dying in his own home. His twelve daily cigarettes are each named after one of the twelve apostles. Owen Cooney tells his son heartrending tales ofan gorta,the Great Hunger which changed the history of Ireland. Billy and May tell their grandson tales of their Salish forebears. Declan, a young fisherman, sets out to catch a halibut as big as a door. Michael, the town policeman, loves opera and knows the lyrics toToscaby heart. Stella, the bar owner, dreams of having a vineyard. A dying man dreams of going to sea. When Daniel rides his bicycle off a cliff, a young she-bear carries his stretcher. Mr. Doyle achieves this interweaving of the tragic and the mundane, the magical and the real, with great success.There is a paternalism in Mr. Doyle, a desire to make amends for the suffering his characters endure. They are his children, are they not? So, at the end, the dying man dies at sea after catching a really big fish. Everyone realizes at least a small piece of a dream. Two or three bad apples are disposed of, but not without sympathy. Mr. Doyle has been criticized for stitching together what appears to be a happy ending, but what he really did was to give people hope. Like the people we love and hold dear, books that we love are often flawed but we love them still.