Brian Doyle’s fiction debut Mink River (Oregon State University Press, 2010) takes place in Neawanaka, a small, fictional village on the central Oregon coast whose indigenous origins reach back about 5000 years. In the present day, its predominantly working-class population is affected by the steady decline of the logging and fishing industries. Irish immigrants, new and old, live side by side with Salish inhabitants.
The large cast tell their stories in different styles. Lyrical passages listing flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest are followed by monologs on family and local history recorded on old-fashioned devices, and breathless chapters juxtaposing the parallel actions of two characters alternate with detailed descriptions of the thoughts and feelings of a single character. Rather than a cohesive story, Mink River is a collection of brief insights into the lives of the villagers.
Portraying poverty: A tricky endeavor
Neawanaka is depicted as a close-knit community: People know each other and get together regularly. Some of them have time to cook dinner and bake a fresh loaf of bread every day. Others spend their days working artistic jobs that earn them very little money. This makes life in the impoverished village appear simple and free of stress, which is often the case when fiction romanticizes poverty.
There are, however, storylines that contradict this reading. The Department of Public Works, the village’s extraordinary institution aiming to improve quality of life, doesn’t have enough funds to employ more than two people. The devoted doctor must work overtime in a bigger town so he can continue to care for the inhabitants without going broke. Abuse, violence, mental illness, and tragic accidents afflict the population, and while everyone does their best to help each other, some tragedies happen without anyone able to intervene – or even noticing. While many of the stories end happily or at least peacefully, some remain unresolved, leaving the readers to choose between good and bad endings themselves.
One place, many voices
Likewise, not everyone shares the same opinion on life in the village. Some see Neawanaka as “a small coastal village of no particular economic, cultural, or scenic interest”, others believe it is „a seething melodrama of shocking proportions”. Some point out it was “invented by a Salish healer or holy man named Sisaxai or Sisaixi who lived a long time ago”, others mainly regard it as “a brooding rotten stump of a town where divorce is endemic depression is normal and alcoholism is all you can hope for”.
While Brian Doyle tries to cover his tracks in this polyphonic jumble, it becomes clear that the author strongly believes that there is good in everyone: Even the characters who inflict pain are portrayed in a humane way, a strategy that doesn’t work out in every case. His message of tolerance also shines through in a conversation about poverty, mental illness, and resilience: “Love doesn’t save anybody. But I found doors and windows. I think maybe they are always there and we don’t see them too well. This is why people invent religions, to map doors and windows maybe. Maybe that’s what art is in the end.”
Mink River is sometimes verbose, contains some far-fetched magic realism elements, and not all of its characters appear convincing. It is a painting more than a book; each story a brushstroke that contributes to the portrait of the place. Despite its flaws, Brian Doyle successfully brings the contemporary coastal Pacific Northwest to life in the microcosm of Neawanaka – its climate and weather, its natural beauty, but also its more distressing socio-economic problems.