Reading Off the Charts Book Reviews: Mink River

Mink River a novel
by Bryan Doyle
Oregon State University Press
Corvallis, 2010

Jordan River at Nightfall by Patrick Hudson

I just put down (no puns intended) one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read, reluctantly saying good-bye to my new friends and neighbors of the fictional Coastal town of Neawanaka (in reality, Neskowin?) by the poet-novelist Brian Doyle. Now, I read parts of his lovely book The Grail: A year ambling and shambling through an Oregon vineyard in pursuit of the best pinot noir in the whole wide world, and it was very good and insightful and brimming with that sharp taste of place, but nothing prepared me for the flights and heights of this new Oregon novel. It is the best book, steeped in the poetry of its characters and place and time, since Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion with an even wider, more magical vision of a particular place, mostly the Oregon Coast and some scenes travelling through the stages of landscapes that lead east, to the magic mountain, Mt. Hood.

Mink River, destined to become the quintessential, post-modern novel of Western Oregon life, embraces magical realism as the only brush possible to paint all the colors seen. Even though it takes place at the Coast rather than the Valley, City or High Desert, and is very embedded in the strata of the Pacific Marine ecosystem, its themes of timeless stories that live through generations and the changes that time works, is an everywhere theme, an anyplace kind of experience. Maybe that is one of the factors that makes Mink River so universal in spite of specific terms of unique place.

And the place becomes alive through the shamanistic compounding power of words, chants invoking the light, the seasons, the feel of air and touch, the contours of the mind, the beloved body and the beloved landscape, the animals, trees, and the sea and all of the sea. Love, death, pain and loss. Time and no time. Healing and no healing. And the celebration of people, human and other species. The plot weaves generations through Ireland, The First People’s NW Coast, and modern Neanwanka’s cultures, languages, and includes the point of view of Moses, the talking crow, who Doyle makes very believable. Really. Does this sound too good to be true? It ain’t! Check Mink River out. “The Department of Public Works” may never mean the same thing to your ears again. This book deserves to be read by every literate citizen, madman, madwoman and Pacific Northwesterner to become sooner than later the shared treasure that it already is. I was lucky to find a copy at the Eugene Public Library while it slowly circulates through the neighborhood book club, a cherished read.

I can see conversations where people will argue with passion who is the most significant character. The dying old nun, the sad doctor, Mike the dilgent sheriff or Worried Man, the sculptor … or … There may be a festival with people coming as their favorite characters. I’d like to see Moses the crow costume. Bryan Doyle deserves a coast highway named after him, along with his memorable characters.

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