To my lasting regret, my eyes once locked with Brian Doyle’s and I didn’t speak to him. It was November 2015, and he was standing alone, available for conversation, having just given the annual lecture for Christian Century magazine. I nodded a “Thanks” and he nodded a “You’re welcome” and I shuffled along.
At that point I had read a grand total of one Brian Doyle poem, so I didn’t want to insult him with my ignorance of his life and work. “Why didn’t you say something about the lecture he’d just given?” you rightly ask. For the better part of an hour he had laughed, cried, roared, sang, wept, whispered, and raged. He’d opened his heart and I had no idea what to do with this precious and vulnerable gift other than mumble, “Thanks.”
Now that I have read several of his books, I feel like I’m just starting to understand his lovely spirit and would give anything for another chance to speak with him. Sadly, Doyle died from a brain tumor in May 2017. Happily, he was a brave, joyful, prolific writer across multiple genres. We may not be able to speak to him, but his considerable writing, much of it originally published in this magazine, speaks to us today as loudly as it ever did.
Did I mention he was prolific? Someone could earn a Ph.D. tracking down everything Doyle wrote. He was in literary journals like The Sun and Orion Magazine, publications like The American Scholar and Notre Dame Magazine, and wrote inspirational devotionals for Guideposts. If my math is correct, he published a whopping 21 books in the last eight years of his life (and edited two others). On top of all that, he edited Portland Magazine, and kept up an incredible ongoing conversation with friends (the writer David James Duncan says Doyle sent him 530 emails and 200 letters in the last two years of their correspondence).
A reviewer once called Doyle the “Townes Van Zandt” of writing, and the comparison is apt. Townes Van Zandt was a musician’s musician, not popularly known, but admired by those in the know. Similarly, Doyle’s a writer’s writer, not as famous as he should be, but greatly admired. He loved long run-on sentences and strings of adjectives. He wasn’t big on commas or periods—the story goes that after his first novel was published, his brother sent him a sheet of paper with nothing but commas on it because he thought Brian might be able to use them. He once told an editor that periods were fascist. Yes, he was quirky . . . and funny and always inspiring and hugely entertaining.
A bibliography of Doyle’s books accompanies this article to help you explore his work. Since the list is so long, I’ve made six suggestions of where to jump in.
Sorin Books, 2014.
If you read through these prayers and don’t, in turn, laugh and cry, you need to check your pulse. The titles say everything: “Prayer for Opossums, You Poor Ugly Disdained Perfect Creatures,” “Prayer of Thanks for Suntan Lotion,” “Prayer for Boys and Girls of Sexual Orientation Other Than Mine,” and “Prayer My Man Daniel Age Three Who Will Die from Cancer in About Two Weeks.” He prays for Osama Bin Laden (“Yes, even him the stupid murderous slime”); gives praise for the Chicago White Sox, the musician Chet Baker, and the basketball player Stephen John Nash; celebrates port-a-potties; prays to the Madonna; prays for the Pope, and many others. I am not sure what genre to call this book. Some have suggested it is poetry, and Doyle’s prayers are related to his “proems” (although a stronger argument can be made that his “proems” are prayers). I simply think it’s a marvelous one-of-a-kind book, and give it six stars on a five star scale. A Book of Uncommon Prayer is the perfect entry into the world of Brian Doyle.
Oregon State University Press, 2010.
Mink River is Doyle’s first novel and may be his finest. It is a sprawling book about a little town on the Oregon coast and the extraordinary ordinary people who live there. Doyle weaves the tales of their lives together into a beautiful whole, filled with adventure, mystery, and, at times, magic. My favorite character is a crow named Moses who was raised by a nun and is an expert in the Psalms. Of course Moses can talk, which only adds to the book’s mythic feel and pitch. But Moses isn’t the only memorable character. There’s an opera singing policeman, a hard-headed, hard-drinking Irish family, a boy, a girl, a doctor, and the devoted and faithful members of the town’s Department of Public Works. To say more would be to enter into the realm of plot spoilers, so I will shut up because I want you to read this book not knowing what to expect, and simply enjoy the wonder of it.
Liturgical Press, 2014.
Since the word “poem” is impossible to define, you might think “proem” would be more confusing still. But “proem” is what Doyle calls his poems, a mash up of prose and poem, presented in rectangular blocks of text. Doyle’s proems tell stories and are accessible and highly entertaining, which means readers may put away their poetry anxiety and dive in unafraid. This collection features “The Whole Weasel Question,” a stunning poem about paying attention and the one Doyle poem I had read before seeing Doyle in 2015. In addition, there’s an actual event based poem about driving the Dalai Lama to Seattle (turns out he likes pop music), a heart-wrenching poem containing a child’s question about giving aborted babies names, and poems about subjects as diverse as Patsy Cline, steak knives, confession, keeping score at an eighth grade basketball game, and Mrs. Job, Job’s overlooked, unappreciated, and unnamed spouse. Doyle may be at his best in his “proems,” and this is a superb collection.
Grace Notes: true stories about sins, sons, shrines, silence, marriage, homework, jail, miracles, dads, legs, basketball, the sinewy grace of women, bullets, music, infirmaries, the power of powerlessness, the ubiquity of prayers, & some other matters
ACTA Publications, 2011.
I had to include this one simply for the subtitle. Another genre Doyle excelled at is the short essay. These essays were initially magazine articles, and it’s easy to imagine an editor saying, “No more than 1500 words.” Doyle, a magazine editor himself, makes the difficult seem effortless, and shone under word constraints. Although several of the essays in this collection appeared first in the print edition of U.S. Catholic, one essay that did not, and on its own is reason to get this book, is “The Genius of American Catholicism,” which ought to be required reading not only for Catholics but Protestants as well.
A charming story of how the lives of a teenager named Dave, a pine marten named Martin, and the people and animals around them intertwine on a mountain in Oregon. I put this book down and wept after one scene, not because it was sad but because it was so filled with goodness. In one of his essays, Doyle admits he knows that “brooding misshapen evil is everywhere,” and “the story of the world is entropy,” but he also knows that “we are carved of immense confusing holiness; that the whole point for us is grace under duress . . .” Thank God Brian Doyle chose to explore grace and holiness much more than evil or entropy.
Little, Brown and Company, 2019.
A posthumous “greatest hits” collection of previously published work, culled from Doyle’s books and a wide range of magazines. Most of these are short essays, with the occasional proem shuffled in. This is also a fine introduction to Doyle, especially because you see the enormous range of topics that occupied his mind.
We’ve barely even scratched the surface with these six worthy suggestions. I feel bad because I’ve left out two notable non-fiction books: The Grail, about wine, and The Wet Engine, about the heart. I’ve also neglected his collections of short stories, like Bin Laden’s Bald Spot & Other Stories. I’ve ignored these books for a very good reason: I haven’t read them yet. Writing this inspired me to order them. I’ll be knee-deep in them by the time you read this article. I love knowing there is more to read, and I hope you are inspired to read Brian Doyle as well.
Brian Doyle: A complete bibliography
One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder, Little, Brown and Company, 2019. Collected Essays
Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace, Franciscan Media, 2017. Essays
Hoop: A Basketball Life in Ninety-Five Essays, University of Georgia Press, 2017. Essays
The Kind of Brave You Wanted to Be: Prose Prayers and Cheerful Chants against the Dark, Liturgical Press, 2016. Poems
Chicago: A Novel, Picador, 2017. Novel
The Mighty Currawong: & other stories, Red Hen Press, 2016. Short Stories
A Sense of Wonder: The World’s Best Writers on the Sacred, the Profane, & the Ordinary, editor, Orbis Books, 2016. Collection
So Very Much the Best of Us: Songs of Praise in Prose, St. Mary’s Press, 2015. Essays
How the Light Gets In: And Other Headlong Epiphanies, Orbis Books, 2015. Poems
Martin Marten: A Novel, Picador, 2016. Novel
Reading in Bed: Brief headlong essays about books & writers & reading & readers, ACTA Publications, 2017. Essays
Children & Other Wild Animals: Notes on badgers, otters, sons, hawks, daughters, dogs, bears, air, bobcats, fishers, mascots, Charles Darwin, newts, sturgeon, roasting squirrels, parrots, elk, foxes, tigers and various other zoological matters, Oregon State University Press, 2014. Essays
A Shimmer of Something: Lean Stories of Spiritual Substance, Liturgical Press, 2014. Poems
A Book of Uncommon Prayer: 100 Celebrations of the Miracle & Muddle of the Ordinary, Sorin Books, 2014. Prayers
The Plover: A Novel, Picador, 2015. Novel
Leaping: Revelations & Epiphanies, Loyola Press, 2013. Essays
The Thorny Grace of It: And Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics, Loyola Press, 2013. Essays
Cat’s Foot: A Novel, ACTA Publications, 2013. Novel
The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of the Heart, Oregon State University Press, 2012. Nonfiction
Ho’olaule’a—Celebrating Ten Years of Pacific Writing, editor, Pacific Writers’ Connection, 2012. Collection
Grace Notes: True stories about sins, sons, shrines, silence, marriage, homework, jail, miracles, dads, legs, basketball, the sinewy grace of women, bullets, music, infirmaries, the power of powerlessness, the ubiquity of prayers, & some other matters, ACTA Publications, 2011. Essays
Bin Laden’s Bald Spot & Other Stories, Red Hen Press, 2011. Short Stories
Mink River: A Novel, Oregon State University Press, 2010. Novel
Thirsty for the Joy: Australian and American Voices, One Day Hill, 2008. Poems
Epiphanies & Elegies: Very Short Stories, Sheed & Ward, 2006. Poems
The Grail: A year ambling & shambling through an Oregon vineyard in pursuit of the best pinot noir wine in the whole wild world, Oregon State University Press, 2006. Nonfiction
The Best Catholic Writing 2006, editor, Loyola Press, 2006. Collection
Spirited Men: Story, Soul, & Substance, Cowley Publications, 2004. Essays
God Is Love: Essays from Portland Magazine, editor, Augsburg Fortress, 2003. Collection
Saints Passionate & Peculiar: Brief Exuberant Essays for Teens, St. Mary’s Press, 2002. Essays
Credo: Essays on grace, altar boys, bees, kneeling, saints, the mass, priests, strong women, epiphanies, a wake, and the haunting thin energetic dusty figure of Jesus the Christ, St. Mary’s Press, 1999. Essays
Two Voices: A Father and Son Discuss Family and Faith (with Jim Doyle), Liguori Publications, 1996. Nonfiction
Image: Sam Beebe