The Department of Public Works

Book Book Review, Title Mink River , Author Brian Doyle, Rating 4.5,

Mink River

Brian Doyle

Book Review

Moses, the crow, explains to Kristi ... I do not understand the ways of human beings. They are a curious and remarkable tribe altogether. They are capable of anything. I know that much. They are a constant surprise to me. They are a constant surprise to themselves also. They appear to live in a state of constant amazement. This makes them refreshing and infuriating. But there is a greatness about them sometimes. More perhaps than they know. Or a capacity for greatness. More than they know.
(page 185)

The Department of Public Works in the coastal village of Neawanaka on the Mink River, besides performing the ordinary public works of cleaning streets and repairing sidewalks, slowly expands over time to 'preserve history, collect stories, repair marriages, prevent crime, augment economic status, promote chess, manage insect populations, run sports leagues, isn't that a bit much? We even give haircuts.' ( page 15) Worried Man and Cedar are its two aging employees, idealists who doggedly work to carry out their mission statement: 'Brains against Pains.' ( page 45)

Doyle tells his story less using plot and more depicting the interplay of people, with their gifts and frailties, and their natural surroundings. The spirit of the village emanates from the natural world around them, explicated by the author’s use of a mixture of Irish-Catholic sensibilities and Salish native beliefs, who quotes Blake: "For everything that lives is holy."(America: A Prophecy, line 106) 

Neawanaka is an old place, populated over thousands of years by native Americans, and mixed today with recent Irish Catholic immigrants, who likewise carried their old ways to this place. The land has its own history, and other living things share the place intimately with its human inhabitants: in the Salish tradition Doyle brings alive some of the animals, most vividly Moses, the wise old crow. Moses introduces himself to an astonished newcomer: "I am of the clan of crow ... my tribe is motley and chaotic. My tribe is dense and tumultuous. We argue and tease and wrangle and goof and fly upside-down. We are brilliant and stupid. We are lonely and livid. We lie, we laugh. We are greedy and foolish. Sometimes we all sing together. We tease dogs. We can be cruel but never for very long. We just can't sustain it. If we could sustain and organize our cruelty we'd rule the world. But what kind of life is that? We all fly home together at the end of the day. We have no kings. We have no outlaws. We have no ranking. We have no priests. We have no status. Age confers nothing in our clan. Size confers nothing. We have no warriors. We have no beauties. That's just how it is. We all look the same. Our stories go on all day long. We remember everything. Our life can be maddening. It gets loud. We never agree on anything. We bicker. We play jokes. We take chances." (page 195)

Neawanaka puts high value on the power of kindness. This has prompted some to describe the novel as too one-dimensional and idealistic. But if Neawanaka appears idyllic, such an idyll is leveled by the unpredictable harshness of nature and human behavior. There are broken people, some of whom do not mend. Michael the cop says that "he liked being a policeman when he first started but now he is burdened by the brokenness he sees every day." (page 52) But those who do mend in this story are helped along the way by people around them who make an effort to care for others. Neawanaka embodies the spirit of Tolstoy’s What Men Live By, which suggests that it is not in the nature of men to live apart, but to care for each other – that it is love alone by which men live.

Most novels of interest typically grab the reader early, yet some of my favorite novels over the years have had the power to pull me in more slowly; before becoming absorbed, at some early point I often consider putting the book down, because it might be taking too much time to develop, or too many characters are introduced too quickly, or the structure of the novel seems obtuse, out of time or with confusing shifts in the point of view. Mink River joins that group, among which are Sometimes a Great Notion by Kesey, Catch-22 by Heller, War and Peace by Tolstoy, In the First Circle by Solzhenitsyn.

Any novel that holds interest is by definition immersive, the reader lost in another’s world, another’s point of view, in thrall to a tale, fascinated and eager to know more, fearful that it will end too soon. Doyle patiently constructs his story like a pointillist painting, relying on small stories within stories and a great pile of observations – like any gifted storyteller, he sees and amplifies the details that otherwise rush by for us in our daily lives.

It can feel like the author shares too much sometimes: every so often the reader will find pages-long lists of the way, say, that the entire town and its animal population may be kneeling, some actually, some metaphorically. For some readers this was an annoyance, but I found myself marveling at the rich tapestry being slowly weaved, the colors and fabric and detailed stitchery that depicted a moment across the entire village and its menagerie. There is much stream of consciousness, long paragraphs without punctuation, but unlike say in Joyce, here the flow of information is not muddled but serves to sharpen the portrait of the character sharing thoughts in this manner. The effort to unravel was more than worth it.

Sometimes something changes you forever and often it's the smallest thing, a thing you wouldn't think would be able to carry such momentous weight, but it's like playground teeter-totters, those exquisitely balance splintery pine planks with a laughing or screaming child at each end, where the slightest change in weight to one end tips everything all the way.
(page 269)

Recommended by my friend David Wilson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve the puzzle to post a comment *