“That could be. That could most certainly be.”
This is the constant refrain—and perhaps the core philosophy—of Brian Doyle’s latest novel The Plover, a loose sequel to his debut Mink River. No doubt it’s reductive to mine such a freewheeling novel for a single “message,” but in this case, at least, the message readers arrive at will likely be one of expansive possibility.
The Plover picks up where Mink River left off: with Declan O Donnell casting off from Oregon in his beloved boat, heading “west and then west” on the “Impacific” Ocean. Declan—scarred and demoralized from a difficult upbringing and his own struggles with alcoholism—has no plan or purpose in setting off, except to read the collected works of Edmund Burke and to escape from the usual tangle of love, life, and hope. Or, as he says to the seagull that takes up residence on the Plover:
On this boat there are no gray areas. There are no misunderstandings. There are no misapprehensions. There are no infinitesimal gradations of emotions and feelings. No one makes mistakes as regards anyone else. There is no anyone else. There’s no past and there’s no future. We are stripping it all down here, my friend. No man is an island, my ass…We are all playing it straight for a change on this island. I expect nothing and you should expect nothing. The rules are simple here, bird. No emotional complications can ensue if we lay it out clear as day in advance. We can crash, sink, burst into flames, get smashed by a huge squid or a whale or a cyclone or pirates, or I can die in any number of interesting ways and the boat goes on by itself skipperless, but that’s the sum total of possibility, understand? We are stripping things down to the bones here. No more expectations and illusions. No more analysis and explications. We are going to live a real simple life here, my friend, and deal with what is, rather than what seems to be.
There is more than a hint of unflinching, macho self-reliance in this monologue, but there is something else too: a trace of irony in Declan’s tone, and a recognition, on Doyle’s part, of the fear of happy chance that can underwrite this kind of “salty confidence.” And it is therefore not surprising that, in a gorgeous twist, Doyle transforms the ocean from the ultimate symbol of isolation to a place of strange serendipity and organic unity. Largely against his will (and sometimes without his knowledge), Declan accumulates a crew over the course of his journey. First comes Declan’s recently widowed friend Piko, along with Piko’s disabled daughter Pipa, the two of whom happen to have been sojourning on a small island that Declan visits. Next there is Taromauri, a misfit woman mourning the loss of her daughter and the breakup of her marriage. Next comes a Minister for Fisheries and Marine Resources and Foreign Affairs, to whom Declan had previously appealed for help following an altercation with a boat known as the Tanets. Ultimately, there is the captain of the Tanets itself, who has spent the majority of the novel nursing an irrational grudge against the Plover’s crew.
There is a school of theory that views literature’s underlying mechanism as one of defamiliarization; through the unexpected insight, the odd turn of phrase, literature jolts us from our complacency and makes us look twice at what seems ordinary. Rarely, though, does that defamiliarization feel as exhilarating and as joyful as it does in The Plover. For all the predictability of its basic plotline—the bitter loner drawn back into the community—every insight feels fresh and sparkling.
To put it another way, The Plover does not defamiliarize the world in order to make us see the wrongs we take for granted—worthwhile as that is, it is not what Doyle seems to have in mind here. Instead, Doyle defamilarizes our surroundings to make us see the wonderful possibilities already latent within them—the entire ecosystem that latches onto Declan’s boat, the “thoughts” of the ocean, the “big soul” that Pipa sends out to explore the world beyond her paralyzed body. He even detours on an island stop to tell us about the “brilliant dog who at the moment is watching from the hillside and considering his options.”
In these and other passages, Doyle strikes an interesting balance between whimsy and depth. His thoughts are light without being empty; there is a buoyancy to his lengthy, wandering sentences that is rare in stream-of-consciousness prose. And this humor seems central to Doyle’s faith that the world is wide-open for reimagining; it takes humor and happiness, Doyle suggests, to rise to such a challenge.
This is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the minister’s dream of creating a new nation from the Pacific Islands; one patterned on the ocean itself, which acknowledges that “the sea owns [the islands] and we reside at her pleasure.” In describing his ideas, he breezes from one topic to another with hardly a blink—“I wish to establish a republic where every tenth person, male or female, young or old, is chosen a National Dreamer. I wish to catch every drop of rain that falls on every island in such a manner that we do not ever again have to purchase water or pay for other nations to construct factories for the cleaning of the water of the sea which is our mother. I wish to teach every child to read and write starting at the age of one”—and it is hard not to worry, while listening to him, that he is either wildly egotistical or mildly insane. And yet it is hard to resist the innocent fervor of his flights of fancy:
We could be a new nation unlike any other nation that ever was, too. That would be excellent. We could be a new kind of nation that never has a war, for example. Maybe we could be a kind of nation that invents new ways to solve problems. We are already a nation with the most remarkable volume and sun and range and amount of salt water and countless numbers of beings many of which we do not even know what species they are, but maybe we could also be the most inventacious nation there ever was. Maybe inventingness would be our National Product. That could certainly be. So everyone would want to get some of our inventingness. We could export that. We could import problems and export solutions that we invented. That could be. That could most certainly be.
If you approach The Plover in a cynical frame of mind, you will likely pigeonhole the minister as a would-be dictator based on these dreams of national glory, but surely he differs in at least one key way: he has no real plan. He’s a kind of visionary without a vision. And as it turns out, this radical openness—to the point of apparent aimlessness—is a strangely attractive quality in a political leader.
As, in fact, it is in the book as a whole. For all its wanderings, The Plover never seems to meander. It digresses, but every digression is a way of dusting off something we take to be ordinary so we can see it afresh.
The Plover was published in April 2014 by Thomas Dunne Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers.
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