The Shell Collector

by Anthony Doerr

Published by Scribner

219 pages, 2002

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Many Happy Returns

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


Described by one reviewer as "a gifted and fearless new writer," at the relatively tender age of 28, Idaho-based Anthony Doerr is creating quite a stir with his short stories. His work has appeared in the likes of The Paris Review and The Atlantic Monthly, and already he has won the Black Warrior Review Literary Prize. (Note: though Doerr is not black, he does have a decided propensity for African locales.)

Doerr's first collection is made up of a mere eight stories, some of such quality as to inspire amazement, and others seriously off the mark. This makes me wonder if The Shell Collector wasn't rushed into print in the wake of his literary prize. Might he have produced a finer, more consistent collection if he had waited just a few more years?

But such are the mysteries of the publishing world. Flawed or not, there is much to admire in this slender, cream-colored volume with its exquisite shell drawings from the Museum of Natural History. Doerr has the neatly telescoped economy of expression crucial for the short fiction form and a great gift for the beauty and primal power of language.

The book leads off with one of its strongest entries. "The Shell Collector" reveals many of the elements Doerr favors: exotic locales, characters with strange gifts, nature threatened by human ruthlessness and a hungry searching which represents a larger, near-mystical quest. The title character, a blind old man living in a hut in Kenya, is washing a bucketful of shells in his kitchen sink when he hears a water taxi land:

He cringed to hear it, its hull grinding the calices of finger corals and the tiny tubes of pipe organ corals, tearing the flower and fern shapes of soft corals, and damaging shells .... It was not the first time people tried to seek him out.

The unwanted visitors are two obnoxious reporters from New York, both named Jim, sniffing out what they think is a very hot story. It seems that the old man, a retired marine biologist originally from northern Canada, has accidentally stumbled on a miracle cure:

This all started when a malarial Seattle-born Buddhist named Nancy was stung by a cone shell in the shell collector's kitchen .... Or maybe it started before Nancy, maybe it grew outward from the shell collector himself, the way a shell grows, spiraling upward from the inside, whorling around its inhabitant, all the while being worn down by the weathers of the sea.

The cone shell "cure" is completely serendipitous, nearly killing Nancy in the process, but nevertheless the shell collector now faces a most unwelcome celebrity. Doerr carefully fills in his backstory, demonstrating that remarkable telescopic technique:

Four books, three Seeing Eye shepherds, and a son named Josh later, he retired early from his professorship and moved to a thatched-roof kibanda just north of Lamu, Kenya.

The shell collector's uneasy relationship with his well-intentioned but obtuse son Josh and its bitterly ironic ending points up certain existential ambiguities that Doerr wisely does not seek to resolve. Rather he illuminates the mysteries with sighingly beautiful prose:

He dreamed of glass, of miniature glass blowers making cone teeth like tiny snow-needles, like the thinnest bones of fish, vanes on the arms of a snowflake.

Similar themes of wildness and mysticism run through "The Hunter's Wife," which is really a story of psychological captivity. Dumas, a hunter and guide in the wilderness of Montana, marries Mary, a teenager he barely knows:

She was a magician's assistant, beautiful, sixteen years old, an orphan. It was not a new story: a glittery red dress, long legs, a traveling magic show performing in the meeting hall at the Central Christian Church.

Winters in their isolated cabin drive them to the brink of starvation, if not madness. Dumas' hold over his vulnerable young wife begins to seem like nothing more than an act of pure male selfishness. Mary sleeps 20 hours a day, but during this near-hibernation begins to develop strange powers:

With her stomach empty and her body quieted, without the daily demands of living, she felt she was making important discoveries .... More clearly than ever she could see that there was a fine line between dreams and wakefulness, between living and dying, a line so tenuous it sometimes didn't exist.

Reduced to her bare essence by deprivation, Mary becomes a sort of shaman figure, able to connect eerily with the spirit realm. This bizarre gift frightens the unbending Dumas into retreat. But 20 years after their parting he returns to her as she demonstrates her powers to a group of university professors. Their halting, tender reconciliation is deeply poignant:

But he was afraid to speak. He could see that speaking would be like dashing some very fragile bond to pieces .... So instead they stood together, the snow fluttering down from the clouds to melt into the water where their own reflected images trembled like two people trapped against the glass of a parallel world, and he reached, finally, to take her hand.

If only all these stories reflected such grace. "For A Long Time This was Griselda's Story" is a rather silly and superficial yarn about a high school volleyball queen in Boise, Idaho who runs away with the carnival, eloping with a strange little man who swallows large chunks of metal. Griselda's letters home reveal her unlikely travels to exotic places all over the world. When she returns (return being one of Doerr's obsessions), she assists her husband while he eats a suit of armor. Whatever Doerr is trying to do here, it misfires into shallow cartoonishness.

This is not the only clanger. "July Fourth," about a fishing contest between Americans and Brits, never rises above the level of glib entertainment. Similarly, "A Tangle by the Rapid River" (yet another fishing story, about an old man cheating on his wife) lacks real depth, coming across as empty writer's card tricks.

Fortunately, the penultimate entry "The Caretaker" pulls up the standard once again. Full of power and poignancy, it recounts the grueling ordeal of Joseph Saleeby, a Liberian civil war survivor trying to make a life for himself as a refugee in Oregon.

This story illustrates just what is meant by the clinical term "post-traumatic stress disorder" as we are forced to see what Joseph saw:

In a place where the market sign once hung between two iron posts, a man has been suspended upside-down. His insides, torn out of him, swing beneath his arms like black infernal ropes, marionette strings cut free.

In his new home in Oregon, Joseph works as a caretaker for a wealthy couple with a deaf daughter. But the horrors of the past dog him. One day he is psychologically undone by the sight of six beached whales by the ocean and compulsively buries their hearts, as if to try to lay his own demons to rest:

For Joseph it is as if some portal from his nightmares has opened and the horrors crouched there, breathing at the door, have come galloping through.

His near-telepathic relationship with the deaf daughter, Belle, whom he rescues from suicide, is Doerr at his most sensitive and effective.

But the last story ,"Mkondo," misses the mark due to sheer repetition of themes. When an American paleontologist named Ward Beach travels to Tanzania to look for a fossilized bird, he meets a beautiful, wild young woman named Naima running through the forest. He takes her home, marries her and subjects her to a sort of psychological captivity. She begins to sleep for most of the day, but out of the depths of her ordeal arises an unusual gift. The parallels to "The Hunter's Wife" continue even up to the end, where Ward returns to Tanzania many years later for yet another halting, tender reconciliation. This time it plays a bit threadbare, almost as if we are being manipulated.

Given his enormous potential as a fiction writer and his relative youth, it seems strange and a bit disturbing that in a collection of only eight stories, Doerr is already repeating himself. There are other pitfalls he must watch out for. Premature celebrity has ruined many a creative gift. It is my hope that Doerr can resist the seductive trap of fame as resolutely as his most intriguing character, the shell collector. | March 2002


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.