I had a respite from grading papers and exams last weekend, and the break allowed me to finish reading a book that I can only describe as exquisite.
It was Brian Doyle’s “One Long River of Song,” a collection of short essays published posthumously last year.
Brian died in 2017 from brain cancer at age 60, leaving behind a widow and three adult children, along with a city full of brokenhearted fans of his unique literary voice. He was an Oregon Book Award winner and a virtual writing machine.
Over the years, Brian wrote eight novels, six books of poetry, several nonfiction books, and dozens of essays and op-eds that appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The Oregonian and other publications, all while serving as editor of the University of Portland’s award-winning magazine. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting him and working with him on a submission or two to The Oregonian’s Sunday Opinion section, in the days when it was still a free-standing, broadsheet section of the newspaper.
Brian was a gentleman — smart, funny and self-effacing. And he was beloved by the community of writers and readers in Portland and beyond.
“One Long River of Song” presents this gifted writer at his finest. Fellow author David James Duncan collaborated with Brian’s wife, Mary Miller Doyle, to compile 81 essays and poems in a 241-page volume that captured his sense of awe at the natural world and his musings about love and grace and wonder and kindness.
Brian was born in New York and attended the University of Notre Dame. He had an extraordinary ability to see and appreciate the simple things in life — a simple word or gesture or emotion — and present them in a spiritual framework for a secular audience. Thought he was a devout Irish Catholic, he didn’t push his faith on his readers as much as he invited them to ponder the presence of the divine in the small, ordinary moments of our daily lives.
Those who’ve read Doyle know well that he made the English language his own, with a one-of-a-kind approach toward syntax and punctuation, often turning nouns into verbs or adjectives, or sometimes writing ridiculously long sentences that somehow always held together.
From an essay about his sons, “What Were Once Pebbles Are Now Cliffs.”
“I am standing in the middle pew, far left side, at Mass. We choose this pew when possible for the light pouring and puddling through the stained-glasss windows. The late-morning Mass is best because the sun finally made it over the castlements of the vast hospital up the bill and the sun has a direct irresistable shot at the windows and as my twin sons used to say the sun loooves jumping through the windows and does so with the headlong pleasure of a child.”
From an essay about an eccentric friend, “His Weirdness.”
“A friend of mine is dying in the fast lane, he says, smiling at the image, for no man ever loved as much as he did zooming those long stretches of highway in the West, where there are no speed limits or curves or cops and nothing to kill you but sudden antelopes. But now he can see his exit up ahead, he says, and he has slowed down to enjoy the ride. He’s been pondering the sparrows, who do not sow and neither do they reap, he says, shuffling into his yard armed with fistfuls of seed.”
And this, from an essay about how he, a self-described “meathead,” once laughed at gay people. “Mea Culpa.”
“The first time I saw the quilt I wept. The quilt is the biggest quilt you ever saw. It is more than a million square feet big. It is haunting and beautiful and terrible and lovely and bright and awful. Every panel is someone who died young. Every panel has tears in it. There are more tears in the quilt than there are threads. I started paying attention. I started listening. I stopped sneering and snickering. I began to hear the pummel of blows rained down on people for merely being who they are.”
This book was a year-end gift from my friend Molly Holsapple. I thank her fot it and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet read Brian Doyle.