Mink River by Brian Doyle

Mink River by Brian Doyle

A small press gem of Northwest literature

This novel is set in a small coastal Oregon town, and seeing as how I live in a small coastal Washington town, so much about this novel seemed familiar. Not just the setting - of rivers and wet undergrowth and tall trees - but the way the characters both interacted and segregated themselves.

"Segregated" is a loaded word. It took me several minutes of dithering before I decided to use it. But I live in a town which is directly adjacent to tribal land, with a tribal village right across the water from the town. Considering how few people live here, how far we are from everything, it's ridiculous to think that two populations could live almost entirely separate from each other, coolly pretending that the other does not exist, but that is what happens here. I recognized that dynamic in this novel.

Mink River has been compared by many reviewers to the works of James Joyce and Dylan Thomas, and with good reason. The tone is similar, the language equally sparse yet dense. The richness of the language works against Mink River, in that I found it difficult to read very much at one time. It takes work to digest, like a large meal. You don't want to glut yourself.
 
Magical realism seems to have had its heyday in the literary world, but it still works if employed with a deft touch. Mink River may occasionally become a little too much enamored of its own cleverness, but it avoids the trap of being too precious. All of the characters are too flawed, too raw, too vulnerable for that to happen. You worry that a book like this will veer off into the "quirky but lovable characters" territory of Northern Exposure and later episodes of Twin Peaks, but it avoids this fate.
 
If I have any complaint about Mink River, it's that the narrative is often lost amid the constantly changing literary devices. Ideally the devices would be in service of the narrative, but with Mink River the horse often rides the cart, so to speak. 
 
The novel works best if you just take it as it is. Let it carry you along, like drifting down-river in a canoe. But I confess that I am often not in a mood for such things.
 
I read this book in Kindle format, but I think it would be an excellent candidate for audiobook. It hasn't been recorded yet, but if it becomes available I would recommend it. The lyricism of the language would really shine in spoken word format.