Good reading draws us into a writer’s world. Naturally we want to explore that place, get to know it’s creator. Looking to the author as guide can be like asking the Cheshire Cat for directions.
When Brian Doyle was asked by the New York Times how he feels about the way his non-fiction is classified, he responded:
“O gawd, this is hilarious, I love where my books are — they are filed everywhere, as spirituality, Americana, Catholic Studies, medical, food, Northwest Regional and, most entertainingly for me, Men’s Studies, as if I knew anything about being a man.”
As if? Dude must have had a big grin on his face when he said that. Doyle’s bearings on manhood are deeply demonstrated by his non-fiction. If he’s unsure he should go back and re-read his book Spirited Men: Story, Soul & Substance (Cowley Publications, 2004). In it he celebrates eleven blokes who inspire us with songs, poems, books, and storytelling. Van Morrison, William Blake, Plutarch, Robert Louis Stevenson, Allan Qatermain, Paul Desmond, Jim Kjelgaard, Graham Green, James Joyce, Paul Kelly, and Bob Boehmer.
“I wanted to bring these men back to public life, in most cases, or closer to the public eye, in others — to draw them from the shadowy corners of the room and beam a grinning light on them, to sing their stories, to see them fresh and new; and to see them too as very often men of immense spiritual substance, prayerful fury, enormous grace, wonderful attentiveness to miracle: in other words, devout men, in the most real and serious and smiling sense.”
See — grinning, smiling, purring loudly and twisting his long spirally tail. Doyle attracts our attention with raw rambling heart and lyrical repetition. He elicits something akin to what I feel when I listen to Van Morrison. Both men seek the right mix to “make the music soar into joyous meditation.”
That holds true for what I’ve read of Doyle’s fiction, too. His novel Mink River (Oregon State University Press, 2010) summons up a mythic yesteryear on the Oregon coast. Like Morrison, Doyle doesn’t evoke nostalgia for a bygone era. He transports us into a parallel dimension where life is often hard yet always washed in a downpour of transcendent stories, and where real men pick salmonberries for friends.
“Rain in and on and over and through the town, gentle and persistent, gray and gentle, green and insistent, thorough and quiet, respectful and watchful. On Worried Man and Cedar in the Department of Public Works where they hunch over a table strewn and scattered with maps. On Declan staggering along the beach to the hulk of his boat. On Michael the cop as he drives gently through town humming Puccini and thinking of what to make for dinner for his wife Sara and their girls. On Sara as she spades their garden with the two little girls who are digging as fast and furiously as possible looking for worms because their daddy says if they find fifty worms he will take them fishing tomorrow morning rain or shine….” (p.141)
You owe it to yourself to read Mink River so you can fully appreciate the folks getting soaked in that paragraph (which goes on for another dozen sentences or so). It took me a couple of chapters to adapt to Doyle’s chanting blend of poetry and prose. Then I went crazy for it, wanting more and more. And I’m equally enthralled by his new novel, The Plover (Thomas Dunne Books, 2014), which continues the saga of Declan O’Donnell, a hard ass with a heart of gold who sails off into the Pacific alone. The book will hit bookstore shelves tomorrow (April 8), just a few days ahead of Doyle’s keynote address at the annual Get Lit gathering in Cannon Beach.
If you admire Doyle as much as I do, come help us give him a resounding hurrah at the Surfsand Resort Ballroom. We’ll feast and then witness what I expect will redefine “keynote address,” in a way that suits us salty folk.
Several years ago I heard the madman speak on a stormy winter night in Manzanita. Standing at the edge of the stage while he was being introduced, Doyle swayed from foot to foot like an anxious lad who is very excited and also really needs to pee. When his literary laurels were held aloft by the master of ceremonies, Doyle cocked his eyebrows and stuck out his tongue, the face of a trickster who might suddenly urge us to run outside and play in the puddles.
Taking the microphone he said “I feel like Oprah Winfrey with this thing.” Then he proceeded to do things I suspect Ms. Winfrey would not do for fear of breaking the rules of fashionable engagement.
Doyle read so fast I could barely keep up, sprinting through big scenic sentences that would take several slow readings for me to fully appreciate. His voice bounced from the low register up close to falsetto, like a goofball dad telling stories to his kids. There appeared to be only adults in the damp graying crowd of listeners, but Brian knew his audience.
I overheard a woman say: “he’s got that Scooby Doo thing down.” Like, agreed, I thought, and the Shaggy thing too. Yet Doyle’s quasi-cartoonish style contrasted with his immensely sane, sober, and often somber material. It quickly became clear that he wasn’t just clowning.
One of the first pieces Doyle read was a poem for Christina Green, a 9-year-old girl murdered by a deranged gunman in Tucson one-week prior. He cried through much of it, and many of the pieces that followed. He relayed stories like prayers people asked him to put on paper — of what it feels like to send a child off to college, or be a young person returning from war.
“The greatest line ever written in this state came from William Stafford,” said Doyle. “Violence is a failure of the imagination.”
That was his rapid lead-in to a recap of a conversation he had with a young veteran on the grass at the University of Portland. “I wonder sometimes how I’m going to get back to thinking,” said the soldier-turned-student to Doyle. “The fact is wars kill words, but no one talks about that…you’re a writer, why don’t you write about that?!”
Doyle’s papers shook as he testified. At times it looked like the ghost of a big gospel preacher had squeezed into the body of a slim itinerant scribe. Yet between readings he downplayed his ardor, moving on as promptly as someone might change the subject after receiving too much attention at a dinner party. Doyle’s performance art carried me somewhere I didn’t expect to go, to a place where men care deeply about life while refusing to take our selves too seriously.
“Who do you write for?” asked an audience member during the talk-back segment of the show.
“I guess I write sort of for the possibility of connective joy,” said Doyle, and the rest of his response was confined to brief clips in my notes. “Almost desperately to connect…Get out of the prison of my dignity…It’s not mere catharsis…For everybody, especially for kids.”
“You’re probably the most emotional writer I’ve seen on stage,” said a man down near the front. “Does that emotion get in the way?”
“That’s actually a piercing question,” said Doyle in a receptive tone. “Life’s short. We might as well try to be naked.”
Several days later I spoke with Cami Gates, a fellow bookseller when she’s not wowing audiences at the Cannon Beach Coaster Theatre. Gates said she has attended two of Doyle’s readings.
“What do you think?” I asked, interested in her insights as both a reader and a performer. The actor paused for a moment to choose the right words.
“He’s nuts,” she said. “Neurotic. Weird. I just love him.”
Me too. Doyle proves good men can be maniacs — some must be, in fact, if we hope to fully engage with the world.
– For more information about Get Lit, or to buy tickets, call 206-914-1255 or go to tolovanaartscolony.org. Tickets can also be purchased at Jupiter’s Books, Cannon Beach Book Company, or Copies & Fax.