On Brian Doyle’s Mystical, Genre-Exploding Work
David James Duncan Remembers the Late Great Writer
Who Tried to "Stare God in the Eye"
My great friend Brian Doyle—”BD” to me for a quarter century, so pardon my addiction to calling him that still—was always an unusually fast and proficient writer. But from the 2010 publication of his first novel, Mink River, until his fatal brain-tumor diagnosis late in 2016, he caught fire. During that period he published two collections of short stories, four collections of the prose/poem hybrids he dubbed “proems,” seven collections of the power-packed short memoirs, epiphanies, and reflections he too reductively called simply “essays,” and five more novels. Over the same span he edited Portland magazine, under BD’s tenure the most heavily awarded alumni magazine in the country as he helped resurrect, for Americans, the ancient and invaluable genre we now call “spiritual writing.”
It strains my sense of the possible to add that BD was simultaneously giving public readings and talks by the dozens, writing recommendation letters, visiting grade schools, high schools, colleges, and book groups to regale what amounted to thousands of people of all ages, writing rivers of the more entertaining emails on the planet, and privately mentoring, entertaining, and consoling more people than we will ever know. Like any good man or woman dedicated to compassion in a post-fact, post-democratic corporate state, he also kept busy annoying the hell out of a few worthy enemies. I can’t resist adding that the typing portion of all these achievements was accomplished with precisely two fingers. I challenge the world’s pianists to see what they can do with the same two fingers.
Brian’s nonfiction appeared in scores of America’s finest magazines, won four Pushcart Prizes, and was regularly reprinted in every major nonfiction anthology in the country—including seven times in Best American Essays. His writing won many more honors than I have space to list here. But the responses from other writers, many of them renowned, are so remarkable I must include a few.
The great Ian Frazier said that Brian “wrote more powerfully about faith than anyone in his generation.” The peripatetic and contemplative Pico Iyer: “Almost nobody has written with the joy, the galloping energy, the quiet love of conscience and family and what’s best in us, the living optimism.” Renowned albatross savior Hob Osterlund: “He knew the strength of women without reduction, without fear or pretense, without the need to saint.” The late Mary Oliver on his essays: “They were all favorites.” (And for a Catholic writer to have his work chosen for Best American Essays by Mary Oliver and by the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens bespeaks BD’s extreme range of appeal.) “We love him,” writes philosopher and earth defender Kathleen Dean Moore:
Brian gets fan mail, sure, but also love letters. . . . People love his work, but more than that, they truly love him. We love him because he spreads his arms and lets us into his amazing mind and boundless heart. . . .The moments he shares with us sing of adoration for all the whistling, sobbing, surging creation. . .[and] by opening our hearts without breaking them he answers our deepest yearning for meaning. Which is joy. Which is gratitude.
How in heaven’s name did one man win such strikingly intimate praise? I would suggest that the extreme intimacy of his nonfiction was not only delightful but highly contagious. BD saw his stories as “diving boards, not news reports.” He was interested less in “ostensible fact and nominal accuracy” than in “the bends and layers and implications and insinuations and shimmers of memory.” Within those shimmers, he said, were “the seeds of stories to which other people can connect.”
A far less subtle feature of Brian’s sentence-making: when he intuited the approaching roar of a whitewater rapid in his imagination, he paddled steady on, refusing to portage round even the wildest water. The prose that resulted made timid readers feel as though they’d been thrown into a kayak and sent careering down a literary equivalent of Idaho’s Payette River during spring runoff.
But sentences that alarm the timid by awakening them to the wilder possibilities of language are heightened, not inept. BD played fast and loose with sentence length, rhythms, grammar, alliteration, and diction to disburden a heart and mind burgeoning with empathy, quickness, joy, wit, and love of “the sinuous riverine lewd amused pop and song of the American language.” Calling a foul on such phrases is like disallowing certain three-point shots of BD’s Golden State Warrior hero, Steph Curry, because they were launched so ridiculously far from the basket. If the ball goes through the hoop and if the sentence sings, both of them count, and I’m giving BD himself the last word on this matter, his ten exclamation points included:
From: Doyle, Brian
Subject: a ha!!!!!!!!!!
Date: January 2, 2015 at 11:34:43 AM MST
To: David Duncan
Have you ever paid attention to Tolstoy’s language? Enormous sentences, one clause piled on top of another. Do not think this is accidental, that it is a flaw. It is art, and it is achieved through hard work.
Brian Doyle lived the pleasure of bearing daily witness to quiet glories hidden in people, places, and creatures of little or no size, renown, or commercial value, and he brought inimitably playful or soaring or aching or heartfelt language to his tellings. When he finished a nonfiction gem he stacked it in his study until he had built up a modest but serviceable book manuscript, which he mailed off without fuss, usually to very small religious publishers.
Many of BD’s friends, myself included, felt that by scattering his best nonfiction through thirteen modest volumes over the years, he prevented his nonfiction from winning the national repute it deserved. This, coupled with his financial fears for his family after his tumor was diagnosed, is why, shortly after his first devastating brain surgery, I asked BD’s permission to consolidate, in a single volume, the kind of nonfiction that earned the extreme praise I’ve quoted from friends, fans, and editors of magazines, with all proceeds to go to his family. Brian did not say yes. He said, “Sweet Jesus, YES! . . . Take whatever you want and tell whatever stories you want.”
With that blessing in hand, I set about assembling a collection with two magnificent co-editors: the editor-in-chief of Orion magazine, H. Emerson (Chip) Blake, and the writer Kathleen (Katie) Yale. BD’s nonfiction appeared more than any other writer’s in Orion, and Chip and I had worked together on my Orion writing for years. Katie also worked for Orion, including on many of the BD pieces, and she knew his work more widely and deeply than Chip and I did, making her the perfect guide in our efforts. To commune with our friend on this project became a joy to all three of us.
Speaking of my own friendship with Brian: when we met 25 years ago we each experienced, without overtly acknowledging it, a flame in each of us that we could always find burning in the other; a flame we both held to be inextinguishable. We recognized our shared willingness to speak of almost anything we perceived as spiritual truth.
We also loved, during our afternoon work doldrums, to share stuff and nonsense of no redeeming social or spiritual value whatsoever. In response, for instance, to a random baseball note from me about how terrifying it must have been for batters to face the six-foot-ten-inch pitcher Randy Johnson, whose wingspan was so wide and fastball so fast he seemed to reach out and set his pitches in the catcher’s mitt by hand, BD instantly replied that Johnson towered atop a mound “like a stork on acid,” whereas Roger Clemens, since our topic was terror, “hulked on the mound, like a supersized wolverine with hemorrhoids.” I received 530 such emails and 200 snail-mail notes and missives from BD in our last two years alone, and sent back close to the same. We shot “riverine lewd amused pops and songs” back and forth the way tournament table tennis players exchange shots: for the high-speed joy of it.
That joy was so important to us both that, a few weeks after BD’s death, it felt perfectly natural to sit down and write him yet another letter. In this one I recalled an exchange, via our usual email ping-pong, in which we marveled that the bodies of trees are built by their downward hunger for earth and water and by their upward yearning for light. How wonderful, we agreed, that these paradoxical aims, instead of tearing a tree in two or causing it to die of indecision, cause it to grow tall and strong. And just as wonderful, I wrote to my flown friend, is how, “during the tree’s afterlife, its former hunger and yearning transmogrifies into the enduring structural integrity known as wood. Wood is a tree’s life history become something so solid that we can hold it in our hands. This is not just some lonely cry or mournful eulogy. Right here in the world where every living thing dies, a fallen tree’s integrity remains so literal that if a luthier adds strings to it, we can turn the departed tree’s sun-yearning and thirst-quenching into the sounds we call live music. And if a seeming lunatic smashes wood’s integrity to a pulp, then makes that pulp into paper, our ink can bring to life stories that multitudes can perform like symphonies in the sanctums of their very own depths and heights.”
It’s a great solace to me to imagine how many readers have done exactly that with Brian’s stories, and how many more will have that experience in this book.
In a tribute in Christian Century, Jonathan Hiskes quotes Brian calling his writing “the attempt to stare God in the eye.” As BD’s spiritual intimate over his last six years, I feel this touches the very heart of his aim. Brian’s work, Hiskes writes,
was a mystical project born of both joy and desperation.… The whirling adjectives, aphorisms, metaphors and paradoxes were his method of using every tool he could to excavate the rich seams of the examined life. He wanted more than to stare God in the eye. He wanted to tell God a few things, and listen too. I picture him as a songwriter-king dancing before his Lord, pouring out words, intermingling praise, grief, fury and laughter. The audacity makes me cringe. Then it draws me in.
Me too. Brian was a born cultural Catholic who cheerfully observed the rites of his inherited tradition. He also, sometimes audaciously, challenged his tradition, and he and I often whispered of our reverence for certain anything-but-orthodox humans and mystical texts. Three such for him were His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus’s mysticism is so overt it’s impossible for the Church to apply it to imperialistic ends. Three such for me are the excommunicated mystical genius Meister Eckhart, the thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen, and that same Gospel of Thomas.
During his final years, BD bravely bore intimations of an early departure from this life. During the same years he experienced ever more frequent visitations of what I can only call epiphanic joys. In the last lines of his last book, Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace, BD summons his combined desperation and joy when he does not merely quote but lives à Kempis’s recommended imitation, making Jesus’s words in the Gospel of Thomas his own, praying to become, as a posthumous mystery, an unending prayer for his family. What greater gift can a mortal father possibly offer?
“We’re only here for a minute,” Brian once reminded us. “We’re here for a little window. And to use that time to catch and share shards of light and laughter and grace seems to me the great story.” How supreme he was at telling that story, and what a marvelous companion he was to so many. “I want to write to you like I’m speaking to you,” he said. “I would sing my books if I could.”
I say he could, and he did.
Watching Brian’s heart songs pour out, relishing his whitewater sentences, too, I witnessed a daring writer and friend embodying the sublime paradox that Dogen described in these words: “The path of water is not noticed by water, it is realized by water. . . .To study the way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to awaken into the ten thousand things.” As much as any man or woman I’ve ever known, Brian James Patrick Doyle reveled in the act of awakening into the ten thousand things.
Brian Doyle’s One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder is out now from Little Brown.