The Plover by Brian Doyle (audio)

And no thinking on this trip, either, he said to the gull floating over the stern. No recriminations and ruminations. No logs and journals and literary pretensions neither. Thinking can only, like the boat, proceed forward.

Thank goodness for Brian Doyle. I had been in a bit of a blue funk and looked for something cheerful to pick me up; a Brian Doyle novel was just the thing, I thought, and I was right.

Based on Martin Marten and Mink River, I foolishly thought the plover in this story would be an actual plover – a bird. Ha! No, the Plover is a boat. (And to be fair, the protagonist of Mink River turned out to be a crow.) Classically, for Doyle, we open with epigraphs: from Robert Louis Stevenson, George Harrison, and Annie Dillard. (Perfect.) Then we plunge right in and meet our protagonist, an eccentric fellow (aren’t they all) named Declan O’Donnell. An Irishman (read here with an accent) who hails from the Oregon coast and a fractured family, he’s invested himself totally in a small trawler he calls the Plover for perfect reasons. He’s “edited” her by, among other things, fitting a small mast and sails; and he heads off from Oregon, intending “west and then west.”

Declan is explicitly trying to escape humankind and all their “emotional complications… expectations and illusions… analysis and explications.” But of course, he is immediately joined (page 1) by a gull, to whom he holds forth at length: we already suspect he enjoys having the company. And the comedy of the book is in all the passengers he takes on: the narrative tells us that the census reaches over one thousand, if we count barnacles, but it also at one point reaches seven human beings. Declan is in fact a more social creature than he aspires to be, and that’s the central storyline here: Macmillan’s blurb calls it “the story of a cold man melting,” and I think that’s not too far off, although I might amend to call it the melting of a man who tried to be cold. Declan has had some trauma in his life, and his reaction is to try and shut himself off. He fails, and that’s one of the joys of this book.

There are so many joys, although also much trauma. Declan’s best friend, Piko, is one of Doyle’s exuberant characters – “he had legally changed his name for a while to an adjective, he played the flügelhorn in a jazz band that deliberately played only such events as weddings between Lutherans and Presbyterians and baptisms of babies named for animals, and he had once flensed a whale by himself, over the course of three weeks, on the beach, living in a tiny blue tent about the high tide line. He was one of those guys who seemed electrified by everyone and everything, the kind of guy who totally lit up when he saw a sparrow-hawk helicoptering over a corn shock, the kind of guy who liked every kid he ever met and every kid liked him… But he had been wounded by a storm, this guy, his little daughter hit by a bus driver when she was five years old waiting for the kindergarten bus, and his light was dimmed.” Pippa, the daughter, cannot move except for a possibly meaningless fluttering of her hands; she cannot speak except to make possibly meaningless squeaks and coos that sound like bird sounds. But she has a rich inner life. (Spoiler: Piko and Pippa will become passengers and crew on the Plover.) Both Piko and Pippa are very Doylesque characters: peculiar, delightful, brimming, wounded. There are more of these in the book – a Doyle novel is made of such characters. Again: just what I needed.

So Declan explores the world, becoming increasingly reluctant to set foot on land. He cares for his boat and weathers storms. He picks up passengers and rails against their very presence, but still they come on. He and his growing crew-family have a conflict with another ship and its ill-intending captain, but everything comes out well in the end. As the small, green, red-sailed Plover swells in population, tensions rise, but so does the incidence of miracles. Doyle is unafraid to take his whimsical characters to the brink of death and then snatch them, in unlikely fashion, back. Once you’ve made peace with this inclination (and I have), it’s great fun.

Declan is a devoted reader of the Irish author and orator Edmund Burke, who is much quoted here, along with a reference or two to Robert Louis Stevenson (upon whom Doyle would base a later book). Through these outside voices, through Declan’s own and the wise voices of his friends and comrades (including one very quirky minister for fisheries and marine resources and foreign affairs), The Plover is a novel of philosophy as well as the story of one plucky little boat and its captain.

David Drummond’s reading feels perfect to me. I love the many different voices, accents, rhythms he plays. Pippa’s exuberance, Declan’s grumpy Irish lilt, the minister’s volubility and interesting speech patterns, and so much more. (Somebody should write a paper on the minister’s word coinages.) A good narrator makes all the difference, and I’m so glad we got a good one here.

Doyle’s usual strengths are all present. Characters and story are brimming and bubbling with good cheer even in the face of significant and imaginative tragedy. Sentences are often long, convoluted, and performative of their content. Details are numerous and precise and bizarre. Nothing has changed; this man is a near-perfect novelist, for this reader. I’m still so sad he’s gone.


Rating: 8 crucial silences between notes.

3 Responses

  1. All of what you say, and I must add….

    You should now re-read Mink River, in which, among many other things, we get Declan’s pre-story, including his fraught family – that which turned this passionate man cold so that he can melt again in The Plover. And we get the pre-story of the Plover itself; the boat which is restored on Mink River after tragedy, and renamed to…. the Plover.

    I am beginning to think a lifetime can be spent simply cycling between re-readings of Doyle’s books, enjoying a refreshed experience each time. Next up for me: The Plover, for a second time.

    Thanks for the memories!

  2. […] father was right to recommend this reread (re-listen) after finishing The Plover. I didn’t even necessarily remember Declan, hero of the latter novel, from Mink River. And […]

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