The Shipping News opens by introducing the main character in the novel, Quoyle. The narrator tells that at thirty-six, Quoyle goes off to Newfoundland, home of his ancestors, but then the narration flashes back to provide some background information. Since he was a small child, Quoyle was regarded as a failure by his family, and he grew up ashamed and lonesome. The narrator describes him as a "great damp loaf of a body," his "chief failure, a failure of normal appearance." Not only is Quoyle extraordinarily large and fleshy, but he also has an abnormally large chin, a "freakish shelf jutting" out from his face.
After dropping out of college, Quoyle lives in a town called Mockingburg, where he meets a friend, Partridge at the Laundromat. Hungry for friendship, Quoyle begins spending many evenings dining with Partridge and his wife, Mercalia. An excellent cook, Partridge also works at the local newspaper and gets Quoyle a job as a reporter. Quoyle is a terrible writer, but still feels energized and inspired by his job. Partridge is harsh with him at work, but helps him nonetheless, and remains his friend outside the office. Ed Punch, the editor, repeatedly fires and hires Quoyle, and Quoyle finds odd jobs to do in between the newspaper stints. The editor notes that for all Quoyle's faults, he has an uncanny way of inspiring people to talk and tell their stories.
Partridge and Mercalia move to California. Mercalia has become the first black woman truck driver in the country, giving up academia in favor of blue-collar work. Quoyle feels lost left in Mockingburg, uncertain of where his life will take him next.
Quoyle meets Petal Bear at a meeting he is presumable covering for the paper. Quoyle falls for her erotic provocation immediately, and they begin a love affair that only offered one month of happiness, and six years of suffering. The narrator likens Petal to Genghis Khan, constantly conquering men with sexual encounters. She was attracted to Quoyle for the sex, but finds his form and personality detestable. They marry quickly, and Petal unashamedly spends all her time going after other men. She calls Quoyle from Alabama to make him read her a drink recipe; she brings home a man and has sex with him in the living room within Quoyle's earshot. She gives birth to two daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, who she neither wants or loves. Quoyle suffers deeply, wanting her desperately in spite of her cruelty.
Quoyle's parents, who belong to the Dignified Exit Society, commit suicide together after both being diagnosed with tumors. His father leaves a message on Quoyle's answering machine, telling him that they have made arrangements for the cremation. Quoyle's brother does not come to the funeral, only concerned with his inheritance. Quoyle's father's sister, Agnis Hamm does not go either, but comes to visit Quoyle to pick up the ashes.
Around this time, Petal leaves with another man, taking her daughters with her. Quoyle comes home to the unpaid babysitter, and goes about trying to get his children back. The aunt arrives, and comforts him with tea and kindness. Although Quoyle keeps trying to defend Petal, the aunt understands immediately that Petal is a "bitch in high heels." Eventually, the police find Petal and the man dead from a car accident. The children are found in a child molester's house; presumably, Petal had sold them to him. They have not yet been sexually abused, and are returned to Quoyle. His children gravitate toward his arms. The aunt decides she will stay for a little while, until things get settled again.