(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Shipping News consists of thirty-nine chapters, the majority of which begin with epigrams and illustrations taken from Clifford W. Ashley’s 1944 how-to book The Ashley Book of Knots. The Shipping News concerns the adventures of Quoyle, a thirty-six-year-old “third-rate newspaperman” from Mockingburg, New York, whose life is a steady stream of failures until he and his small family pick up stakes and move to their ancestral home in Newfoundland. The Ashley Book of Knots helps to tie together their improbable, comic—and sometimes even Gothic—adventures by providing a framework for the book and a subtle commentary on its action.

Quoyle’s voyage towards happiness is set in motion by the death by suicide of his parents, whose farewell message to him is cut off by his answering machine. Then his estranged wife, Petal Bear, is killed in a car crash. Although Petal had borne Quoyle two children, Bunny and Sunshine, she had also been flagrantly unfaithful to him, and after her death, Quoyle is obliged to call in the police to retrieve his daughters from a pornographer to whom Petal had sold them. To cap off his catalog of woes, Quoyle is fired from his job covering the municipal beat at The Mockingburg Record.

Quoyle’s father’s sister, his Aunt Agnis Hamm, then intervenes, offering him the chance to begin a new life by moving to their ancestral homestead on Quoyle’s Point, near Killick-Claw, Newfoundland. The house, which has stood empty for forty-four years, is still standing—but only because it is lashed with cables to iron rings set in the rocky outcropping that is Quoyle’s Point.

On the way out to the Point, Quoyle is beset by “the familiar feeling that things were going wrong.” Yet once he and his family actually arrive, it does seem possible to come to terms with the past and make a fresh start. Aunt Agnis, it seems, is a self-sufficient, rather well-heeled yacht upholsterer whose determination and pocketbook permit the refurbishment of the old house. Quoyle also finds—much to his amazement—that he fits right in with the eccentric staff of the local newspaper where he has been hired to cover the shipping news.

The paper, The Gammy Bird, is...

(The entire section is 928 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Quoyle is a thirty-six-year-old man with an ongoing history of mediocrity and failure stemming from his childhood. The awkwardness of Quoyle’s formative years has never ceased, and in adulthood Quoyle continues to suffer torments that result from his low estimate of his own self-worth. His parents, never really loving or proud, commit suicide together after they are both diagnosed with cancer.

Shortly afterward, Quoyle comes home to find that his hateful, hyperphilandering wife Petal Bear has run off with another man and taken their two daughters with her. After selling Bunny and Sunshine to a pedophile, Petal and her lover are killed in a car accident. Fortunately, the girls are rescued and returned to their father without suffering any physical abuse. Quoyle’s aunt, Agnis Hamm, arrives to claim her brother’s ashes and convinces Quoyle to move with her and his girls to her childhood home in Newfoundland.

The employees of The Gammy Bird, the town newspaper in his new home of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, rival Quoyle’s flippant attitude concerning the news with their absurd brand of reporting. The staff includes Billy Pretty, an old fisherman who writes the Home News page and whose desk resembles a bazaar or flea-market display, and B. Beaufield Nutbeem, a British castaway who washed up in Killick-Claw and stayed. Nutbeem steals stories from the radio and then plagiarizes them for his foreign news section. Tert Card, the devilish managing editor, is notorious for his wildly nonsensical typographical errors.

Jack Buggit, a proud local, avid fisherman, and the founder and editor-in-chief of The Gammy Bird, has an odd set of standards for his newspaper. He considers Card’s errors to be humorous additions, he allows Billy Pretty to publish more than three stories of sexual abuse per week, and he requires a front-page story of a car wreck every week—regardless of whether or not an accident actually occurs. Buggit assigns Quoyle the car wreck section of the paper, along with the task of writing the shipping news, which...

(The entire section is 852 words.)