Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wednesday, March 26, 2014: Maximum Shelf: The Plover

Thomas Dunne: The Plover by Brian Doyle

Thomas Dunne: The Plover by Brian Doyle

Thomas Dunne: The Plover by Brian Doyle

Thomas Dunne: The Plover by Brian Doyle

The Plover

by Brian Doyle

If there's one thing Brian Doyle's fiction has in abundance, it's joyful exuberance. The exuberance begins with the epigraph to his new novel, The Plover, or, rather, the epigraphs--three of them. Robert Louis Stevenson writes to Henry James about how much he loves being at sea, "never wearied." George Harrison says that "Every one of us has within us a drop of [the] ocean." Annie Dillard tells us, "The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out."

Portland, Ore., resident Doyle has written fiction, including his oh so buoyant  and funny Mink River; nonfiction (The Grail, a guide to the pleasures of pinot noir); essays, more than a few of those; and poetry, one collection entitled Thirsty for the Joy (water & joy, again!). The Plover is first and foremost a sea story, a picaresque one, but it's also, as most fine literature certainly is, about something else, and this captivating novel really is something else.

Declan O Donnell, our hero, is a huge fan of the sea and the writings of Edmund Burke. He was last seen at the end of Mink River, scrounging around for a mainsail in the hold of his boat: "Good that I leave. Maybe it's best that I leave." Now he's back, pilot of the Plover, a small boat the "size of a roomy coffin." It was once a small trawler, but has been fitted with a mast like "a grade-school flagpole" and is now ready for coastal sailing--the Oregon coast, that is. But it was last seen heading directly west from the coast, "no destination known." As Declan tells us, "I am on a voyage to nowhere, and in no hurry to get there neither." The Plover is silently "scuttling on the ceiling of the sea."

Early on, a gull joins him and Declan talks to her, like Tom Hanks did to his fellow castaway, Wilson the soccer ball. "Bird! [A]re you in this for the long haul?" The gull remains a constant guest. But Declan "felt the absence of his kind like a new hole in his flinty soul. He sobbed... until he was empty," then fell asleep:

"As Declan slept, the Plover drifted over a vent in the ocean floor around which gathered blind crabs as white as snow, and nameless fish with transparent heads, and creatures never seen yet by the eyes of man; but we have seen them in our deepest dreams looming out of the dark, with eyes of fire."

But he's not completely alone. Accompanying him on this sea are objects (he keeps a list). Here are half a bottle of wine, a plastic turtle, a tiny head of a sea lion pup, a very old basketball, a ukulele, every sort of tampon and more--including a ship, dead ahead. It's Declan's first encounter with Enrique and his ship, Tanets. "You want beer?" Enrique says, "Maybe we will shoot you and take your boat." They don't, they leave, but they will return, like the pirates they are. Then, out of nowhere, an island, and a native in a canoe with a letter for Declan (!). It's from his friend Piko; he knew Declan would eventually pass this way. (At one point our omniscient narrator says, "What is this, an eighteenth-century novel?")

Piko's daughter, Pipa, brain-damaged and crippled, is with him on the island. They join Declan on the Plover. Pipa is strange, but in a nice way. She is able to make sounds that speak to birds: "They mewed and stared at Pipa as if waiting for something to be said... a message to be conveyed... but she only sat there under her fluttering white hair, her hands fluttering like wings." All kinds of birds, "all of them talking at once in myriad languages." She also knew "how to see inside dark places without using your eyes... how to sleep with her eyes open." And she could "hear people coming from a long way away."

As for the story of his whole life so far, Declan says, "The thing I learned most in my work is that whatever you are sure of don't be, and as soon as you think you know something for certain, you don't." And then there's the matter of that persistent "fecking hole" in the Plover that Declan patches over and over again because the "ocean is a professional assassin, my friend."

And so the adventures continue. Piko is shanghaied by Enrique, while an enormous intruder, Taro, from Enrique's ship, comes aboard. Other people are met and welcomed--a mysterious boy from a forested land and a minister exiled because he was too much of a visionary. Perhaps Doyle should have subtitled his novel The Plover: In Which Our Sea-Faring Hero Declan O Donnell, Gentleman Sailor, Encounters Diverse and Unique Peoples, Lands, and Adventures. Is he the new Tristram Shandy?

There's certainly some of the Irishman Laurence Sterne here. Indeed, there's more than a bit of the Irish in The Plover, and Irish writers in particular. "Old Ed Burke," for sure, that "[b]rilliant Irish guy." Add a dash of Beckett's absurd logic, a dram of Flann O'Brien's witty playfulness and, of course, the Joyce of Finnegans Wake.

The Plover is a fun ride with meaning and heart, lots of it, as well as jokes, scares, storms at sea, surprises, magic, absurdity--and humanity, exuberant joyful humanity. A lot of that. As we're told: "What could be better than this." --Tom Lavoie

Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99, hardcover, 9781250034779, April 8, 2014

Thomas Dunne: The Plover by Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle: Yearning for the Sea

photo: Hob Osterlund

American essayist, editor and fiction writer Brian Doyle received his B.A. from the University of Notre Dame in 1978. After working at various magazines and newspapers in Chicago and Boston, he has, since 1991, edited the University of Portland's Portland magazine. Doyle's books have four times been finalists for the Oregon Book Award, and his essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Orion and American Scholar and have been reprinted in the annual Best American Essays, Best American Science & Nature Writing and Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. He's also received a Catholic Book Award, two Pushcart Prizes and a 2008 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

A prolific writer of essays, stories and the prose poems he calls "proems," Doyle has published 12 books, including the essay collection Spirited Men, about male musicians and writers; The Wet Engine, about "hearts and how they work and do not work and get repaired and patched, for a while"; and The Grail, about a year in an Oregon vineyard. His first novel is the "sprawling epic elephantine serpentine" (his words) Mink River. The same might be said of his second,The Plover, a seagoing adventure and so much more.

Granting that The Plover is not a sequel to Mink River, what drew you back to Declan O Donnell as a main character?

No kidding--a hundred times at book clubs and readings people have asked me, What happened to Declan??!! (who just sails right out of Mink River on his boat near the end and gets no Normal Narrative Closure). Finally, I thought, out of sheer curiosity, I would type for a morning and see if there was any energy there--and whoosh, away it went.... I think now (I always think about my books after I write them, not before) I must have wanted to write a sea novel for years--I just adored Stevenson and Kipling and Conrad and Jack London and voyage-logs and sea stories and Kon-Tiki as a boy.

In both books you have community healers: Worried Man and Cedar, Taromauri and the Minister. Even the gull in The Plover is a healer. Does every story need a healer?

Hmm. Good question. I didn't do that consciously; I suppose it says something about me--maybe as a Catholic or a dad or a guy liable to seeing the fingerprints of the Mercy everywhere--that healers and mystics and broken saints sprint through my books. A psychologist would have a field day with me.

Did you do copious amounts of research on birds, the sea, currents, islands, navigation, the stars...? There is so much lore in the story, where did it all come from?

Oh yes, I worked like a horse on all that. I knew nothing about boats and ships and navigation and nautical lore and hydrology and oceanography, but (a) I am a fast avid hungry omnivorous reader; and (b) once I am into something I happily pour myself into every bit of study I can find; and (c) a good friend of mine is a retired admiral in the U.S. Navy; and (d) a Navy friend of his actually did live alone on small boats deep in the ocean for years and had tart blunt answers to every question I asked. Plus I love maps. Plus I have a Pacific island jones bigger than Kauai. Plus I am a bird addict by nature, anyway, and all birds are my constant study. Each one a novel with feathers.

The menace of the Tanets and Enrique starts early and is a constant throughout. Yet, you allow reconciliation with Enrique. Is this part of the "healing" lesson?

Again, not really conscious; it just sort of happened that the decision has got to be made on the boat (not in the author) about that guy. The conscious part for me was watching Declan slowly thaw and open and let other people into his bricked-up heart; what happens with his enemy had to be part of that, in the end. But it's more like the story led me there than me planning that. My novels are headlong adventures for me, too--I have only the vaguest idea of what might happen, and it changes radically over the course of the voyage. I like to be surprised, just as I hope readers are surprised. Doesn't seem as much fun to be in control. I have three kids; I learned long ago I am in control of nothing but admitting that I am not in control.

Why do we go to sea?

We yearn for it. The salt water in us. We came out of small seas. It's open and vast and maternal and savage and dismissive and I think we starve for it sometimes. We go there when we are bleak and dark and just stare, don't we? We go there to calm down and listen and be at the edge of all things. I think there's really and truly some inchoate inner tuning fork in all of us set to the sea. Water's holy, and moving water is irresistible. We dig rivers and creeks and the seething ocean and sit and stare at them like we do at fires. Plus I think there's some very old thing in us about boats, too--we are an adventurous species....

You say "We are starving for story." Is that why you write?

Well, I write mostly because I am a nut who cannot not write; as my late friend George Higgins said, writing is a benign neurosis. Plus, I occasionally get paid in excellent bottles of wine. But I do think stories are food and song and ways to speak when mere words cannot carry the ball. I think we are story junkies, and stories are what nations and religions and towns and families are composed of. We have story-sized holes in our heads and hearts and the right story at the right time opens your head and heart like a key turning in a lock. I have written a handful of stories that were the right story at the right moment, I think: the essays "Leap" and "Dawn and Mary," for example-- things that needed to be said, things that in an odd sense I cannot take full credit for; they were stories waiting to be told. I sort of feel like that with my novels--like the chracters were waiting impatiently for me to get to the keyboard finally.

Piko and Pip are are unique and irresistible. They seem to knit everything together.

I am not very sure where they came from, quite. My lovely bride, my first and trusty reader, says Piko is based on my brother Peter, but that wasn't conscious. The Pip--she just arrived, asserted herself, presented herself to be told, and, to be honest, I think she is the star, the hero, the center of the book.

Edmund Burke provides a philosophical subtext throughout. He supported the American Revolution, did not support the French Revolution and is generally cited as the founder of American conservatism. How do all these disparate elements fit? Is it enough to say that he was an original thinker?

Oh yes--original as could be. I have always been fascinated with him, and The Plover was a chance to explore and plumb and read and plunge into his life and work at length, with immense pleasure. He was born poor and Irish, under a cruel English empire, and he ended up star of the English Parliament--what a story! And it's a mistake to think of him as "conservative" in the way we think of the term--he was roaringly concerned with the poor and oppressed, thought that government was responsible for all its citizens, that our revolution was a terrible shame for England and that England was at fault for it and we were right to be appalled at our treatment by imperial buffoons. He thought the French Revolution was mostly murder in which one set of arrogant thugs succeeded another. You cannot read Burke as anything but Burke; conservative scholars of our day who want him for a patron saint would be well advised to actually read him thoroughly. He's no one's flag bearer, which is one of the things I like about him. Plus oh my god what a writer, who often wrote down his speeches after he delivered them, from memory, isn't that incredible?

What's up next?

I'm working on another novel. --Valerie Ryan

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