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 named for a sociable eider duck with a habit of gathering in large squawking colonies that gave rise to the term “gamming.” In the days of sailing ships, when two vessels met on the open seas, they often drew up close to one another so that their crews could exchange news by shouting at one another. This practice came to be known as gamming, and now it is Quoyle’s job, in his new maritime location, to report the all-important shipping news, to “gam”—and also to cover car wrecks.
Quoyle finds, somehow, that his new job suits him. For one thing, he is surrounded by individuals whose peculiarities more than match his own. The Gammy Bird is owned by a lobster fisherman named Jack Buggit, a man who punctuates his speech with the expression “cockadoodle,” which he employs like an oath. The paper is managed by the perennially irritated Tert Card and staffed by Billy Pretty, an old fisherman who writes the paper’s homemaker’s column, and B. Beaufield Nutbeem, a British expatriate whose gossip column seems to focus mostly on local sex scandals. The Gammy Bird itself is a tissue of lies, its pages filled with fake advertisements and trumped-up stories: Jack Buggit’s instructions to Quoyle are that he run a front-page photo of a car wreck every week, whether or not a wreck occurs. Still, Quoyle grows into his job, lending the kind of attention to reporting the shipping news that causes other journalists to take notice of him. Having returned to his ancestral home, he begins to find a kind of peace and dignity that life had always before denied him.
Agnis Hamm, too, gains a measure of peace in returning home. She had last seen Quoyle’s Point almost fifty years earlier, when she was fifteen years old. Just as Quoyle’s return was occasioned by the deaths of his...
(The entire section is 1,780 words.)