SEVERAL OTHER BOOK REVIEWS have described Brian Doyle's first novel in glowing terms, and I will too—with a few qualifications. Reviews allude to Doyle's quirky characters and cogent writing style, but they stop short of detailing any "story." I, too, can offer no true synopsis of Mink River, save for this: The setting is the story.
Mink River is set on the Oregon coast, specifically the village of Neawanaka, which is rendered as though it were an extension of the west coast of Ireland. (This isn't far-fetched, in fact. Having lived in both Ireland and Oregon, I can affirm that the similarities between the two don't end at stunning green vistas and chronic inebriation—nor at their untamed shorelines and pallid folk.)
Mink River teems with O'Donnells, bits of Irish language, and descriptions of Irish ancestry. The most Irish trait of the novel, however, is Doyle's writing—or at least, his approach to language. Doyle's storytelling nears the stream of consciousness style used in archetypal Irish literature. James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses (particularly the "Wandering Rocks" chapter) come to mind as possible inspirations. Even Doyle's vocabulary and voice resemble Irish poets Paul Muldoon and Patrick Kavanagh, respectively.
The novel thus swells with run-on sentences and abrupt "plot" shifts, requiring undying commitment to ford the engulfing stream. When I approached the novel as a narrative (linear or not), I found it tiresome. More satisfying is to read Mink River as a prose poem—an extremely long prose poem. Alliteration and assonance abound in Doyle's language; as a result, a soothing timbre—like lapping waves on a boat—emerges.
As for the novel's reportedly "quirky" characters, I found the inhabitants of Neawanaka—except for the cop who's really into opera—entirely plausible. Doyle's matter-of-fact manner makes the characters' traits simply incidental in this setting. Even the talking crow seems appropriate.
Mink River is an impressive work, mainly for its mellifluous language, but also for its ambition. It is an intriguing first novel; after reading it, however, I'm not particularly interested in the author's future fiction output. Instead of anticipating Brian Doyle's next novel, I look forward to reading more of his poetry.