Bookmonger: Portland author's seafaring novel trawls for meaning


I'm a fan of Portland-based Brian Doyle's weekly essays in The American Scholar, and I vaguely remember reviewing "The Grail," his nonfiction book on pinot noir winemaking, nearly a decade ago, but somehow I missed seeing his more recent debut novel, "Mink River."

If I had read it, I would have gotten acquainted with Declan O'Donnell, an irascible but charismatic character who apparently sailed away at the novel's conclusion - and left many readers asking for more.

Now, in "The Plover," they have it.

At the beginning of this story, O'Donnell, a self-avowed loner, has indeed set out from Oregon on his small, idiosyncratically outfitted vessel, The Plover. The voyage he intends will be both solo and singular, heading west along the 45th parallel on "this particular jaunt, this epic adventure, this bedraggled expedition, this foolish flight, this sea-shamble, this muddled maundering, this aimless amble on the glee of the sea..." with only a gull floating overhead and the published speeches of Edmund Burke for company.

But as anyone knows, even folks with carefully designed schemes can get blown wildly off course. When that happens to Dec, the resulting pelagic detours become the generous heart of this book.

It is after toughing out not one, but two, harrowing storms on the open ocean that Declan reluctantly changes his course and heads south to find a tropical island where he can tie up somewhere discreetly, re-provision, and then slip back out to sea.

Instead, he finds himself taking on passengers.

The first are a man and his daughter who knew Dec from his Mink River days and somehow figured they could link up with him here. How can the captain of The Plover say no on a tiny dot of an island in the midst of the Pacific Ocean to a man who has lost his wife, and a child who has lost much, much more than her mother?

Once Dec's vow of solitude has been compromised, much more comes streaming in: stowaways, castaways and their attendant complications; bonhomie and treachery; perilous weather and becalmed seas. This is a novel full of remarkable flotsam and other surprises.

It is not by accident that Doyle juxtaposes the vastness and depth and mystery of the ocean with the loneliness and quirks of the soul. He mulls over memories and morals, the poison of harmful behaviors, and the alchemy of healing touches.

Like the best of maritime tales, "The Plover" roils with action, quips, philosophy, tall tales, fights and starry nights. There are guffaw-outloud moments, and there are passages of deep poignancy. And - cue the "Jaws" soundtrack - a foreboding ship lurks just over the horizon.

There are so many pleasures to discover for oneself in reading this exceptional novel - effervescent prose, captivating characters, expansive imagination - I should refrain from saying too much more.

But surely "The Plover" is in port at your local bookshop, with the gangplank extended. Why not come aboard, mateys, and set sail on "the glee of the sea"?

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at


Brian Doyle talks about "The Plover" at the Chuckanut Radio Hour at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 26 at Whatcom Community College's Heiner Center Theater.

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