Brian Doyle: Without Stories We Are Only Mammals with Weapons

Michael McGregor remembers the time he told his friend and fellow Oregonian and writer Brian Doyle that, having spent years researching his biography of the spare mystical American poet Robert Lax, he was nervous about embarking on the writing. “That’s the easy part,” Doyle reassured him. “You just tell stories.”

Easy, huh? Doyle, who died in 2017, always made it look that way. Story, that humanity-defining pastime as old as the first blazing prehistoric mammoth roast, was everything for Doyle, one of eight Irish Catholic children born to a journalist and schoolteacher in New York City, a husband and father of three who once marveled before a crowd of some 400 college magazine editors at how his wife’s womb functioned like a tiny apartment building, a self-professed “story catcher” sure he was called by God to hook stories “by their brilliant tails as they rocket by, carve and sculpt them into arrows and fire them into the hearts of as many people as I can reach on this bruised and blessed planet.”

“At age 50,” he wrote in 2007, when it seemed that the much-loved writer’s writer who edited the University of Portland’s quarterly magazine was just warming up and was bound to live forever, “I conclude that I was born and made for stories; I am a storyman. I believe with all my hoary heart that stories save lives, and the telling and hearing of them is a holy thing, powerful beyond our ken.” If the vocation came late, Doyle would make the most of it.

So let us now praise the late Brian Doyle, who submitted humbly to a brain tumor a startling ten years later—by then the author of five or six novels and maybe twenty books in sum depending on how you count; the winner of a donut-shop-wall’s worth of enviable writing accolades and prizes; a notorious punctuation scofflaw; an experimenter with something he called “proems”; a prolific Promethean weeping laughing Van de Graaff generator of actual poems, and of short stories featuring animals and children and patient scoutmasters and pickup basketball; a submitter, seemingly every other day, of at least one publishable not-to-be-tinkered-with nonfiction perforation of readers’ hearts. And let us approach him the way he approached every holy minute of his life and writing, which is to say with stories—two of them, one about humility, one about what we really mean by “truth”—that may illuminate the unique enduring vocal energy that infused Doyle’s work.

The first story belongs to McGregor—and to anyone who attended the eighth straight Oregon Book Award ceremony for which a Doyle creation had been nominated, elusively. Doyle turns up for the evening with a fiery grin on his spectacled face and a headband on which he has scrawled “Loser.” Irrepressible, he wins the next year, on his ninth go-round, with Martin Marten. But can the joy of that final victory in year nine possibly surpass the mirth that sparked the wry humility he had worn on his forehead in year eight?

The second tale belongs to me. Then the campus news editor of Notre Dame Magazine, I had the pleasure of working directly with Doyle but once, a two-email interaction that consisted of Doyle cheerfully batting down my junior gatekeeper’s pro-comma arguments for intelligibility and line length. The essay is “Mr Borges,” a hilarious and almost-surely-mostly apocryphal reminiscence of that one time when, as a Notre Dame freshman, Doyle corners Jorge Luis Borges and his officious apoplectic student-escort outside a campus lecture hall so he can tell the older man what he thinks of his work.

The consensus in our editorial huddle is that the story, submitted as a first-person essay by a regular contributor who knows perfectly well that our submission guidelines all but exclude fiction, is maybe seven percent genuine anecdote and the rest just so much embroidery. Never mind. I want it for the department I have created for campus history. It is too good to pass up because it is meant to be taken figuratively, and it contains a piece of purported advice that the “scholarly Argentine fantasist . . . a very courteous guy” offers the cheeky aspiring scribe: “Get as close to the truth as you can, he said.” The phrase is a metanugget of commentary on “Mr Borges” itself that unlocks the whole corpus of Doyle’s writing for me.

By then it was 2011, and Doyle, the essayist at heart who “believed that everything is a form of prayer, including laughter, including tears,” had applied Borges’ lesson, whatever its resemblance to verbatim veracity, to his first work of long fiction. Mink River, an elaboration of another short story (“If Time Were Not a Moving Thing”) that Doyle had wangled into Notre Dame Magazine in 1987, demonstrates his proficiency at stretching his unmistakable voice as a contemplative raconteur and divine comedian from the cloistered confines of the thousand-word essay into the open-air possibilities of the three-hundred-page novel.

Mink River also affirms Doyle’s impatient distaste for the pedantic sort of truth signified by such things as commas and quotation marks. Getting as close to the truth as one can means brushing past mere stenography in pursuit of bigger game: truth understood as a vast muscular wild tangible sacred spiritual substance that swirls around and beyond the surface appearances of the sensible world. Strict accuracy carries as little cache in Doyle’s nonfiction as it does in his fiction. “If you want facts, I don’t have any,” he told a student newspaper reporter shaking him down for campus ghost stories. “But if you want stories, I have lots of stories.” And in Mink River, the river itself thinks, bears name things in their own “dark language,” crows lay down their lives and wings for the friends of their friends, and an angel speaks in a voice neither too still nor too small to prevent mortals from monkeying with the machinery of good and evil, the machinery of life.

Doyle dismissed lazy labels for such creative experiments. “I don’t think I write magic realism,” he told an interviewer two novels later, in 2016. “I want more to suggest gently that millions more things are possible and real and happening than we know about; I am a big fan of wonder and humility. We are such an arrogant species. Anyone who is sure what’s impossible and possible in this world is a fool.” Doyle spoke, lived, and wrote as if everything was a miracle, as if the things and happenings that most of us call “miracles” are simply what God wills to be whether we know it, or hear about it, or understand it, or believe it—or not.

Mink River casts aside other conventions, too, such as a single clear protagonist. Whose story does the novel fundamentally tell? Doyle’s friend Barry Lopez seemed to have forgotten Mink River when, while giving his last interview before his own death from cancer in 2020, he suggested that the lone culture hero had lost relevance given our habituation to massive communal abuses such as world wars and the profligate consumption of fossil fuels that threaten to destroy the planet. “We need new narratives, at the center of which is a concern for the fate of all people,” Lopez said. “The story can’t be about the heroism of one person. It has to be about the heroism of communities,” the pattern for which Lopez thought might be found in something like “a murmuration of starlings.”

Lopez lamented that such a novel had not yet been written. But the complex, naturalistic, braided narratives of Mink River seem presciently to have filled the National Book Award winner’s belated prescription. Panoramic passages move as many as a dozen storylines forward at once. Short chapters pace developments briskly. Victories are shared, never solitary. Evils, such as the slaughter of the O Donnells’ herd of cows, may be perpetrated by individual dissolution, senselessness, rage, and arrogance; but goods like the redemptive feasting on O Donnell beef in the high school stadium happen only through collective humble effort. The “heroism of community” could hardly be a more apt description.

Doyle’s 2010 novelistic debut not only defies the identification of a single protagonist, it voices his conviction that human beings, and maybe readers in particular, “are called to compassion, and not to judgment.” To the extent that the author, in his admirable charity, allowed himself to portray characters as heroes or villains, they are fluid concentrations of the humility Doyle loved and the arrogance he feared; each human character in turn exhibits measures of both. (Animals, by contrast, are stable and wiser.) Doyle holds out hope for the man who beats his son and the man who rapes his daughter and the woman who abandons her marriage and children, telling their stories with generous attentiveness and care.

In the end, the Pacific port town of Neawanaka, standing at the misty salty mouth of the Mink, thrives only when its residents band together rather than trying to go it alone. Those who pull away suffer but are not entirely forgotten. When, in the closing chapters, the townspeople gather at the pub to wager on when the Rains will begin, Stella the bartender-turned-tree farmer “thinks about all the people who could have squares in the [betting] pool but don’t and no one even thought to speak their names aloud: Red Hugh O Donnell, and the quiet man in the wheelchair who went with Dec on the Plover, and Nicholas’ dad, and Kristi’s dad, and the nun who died in the old hotel, and Grace’s mother, and Rachel’s baby, the inch who went to sea.” Stella’s list is no mere enumeration of names but an expression of the relationships that make the broken community heroic.

More could be said in a longer essay about how Doyle’s experimental style advances his quest to get close to the truth. For now, consider this: the flowing barrages of vivid metaphors that beg readers to see people and things with compassionate understanding (e.g., the green fish “leaping furiously” in Maple Head’s eyes); the storytelling within the story, sometimes in as little as a line or a phrase (e.g., “When the wind changed direction suddenly, that was Asin”); the evocative lists of material objects, such as Owen’s repair-shop clutter, a passage worthy of James Agee’s anguished litanies in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; the braiding of stories within single chapters and paragraphs, each story unfurling one sentence at a time, a narrative technique that lets the stories speak to each other while buttressing each against sentimentality (e.g., the doctor reading from Acts while Grace, Declan, and Nicholas are thrown from their boat); the panoramas of human activity as seen through the swooping of an eagle or a crow or an invisible floating narrator, all hinting at the eye of God.

What are these techniques if not illuminative turnings of those “shards of holiness” at which Doyle once vowed to point?

Pope Francis has called for a revival of Christian joy at a time when the institutional Church seems mired in the darkness of its own moral failure and muted by the confusion of a cynical, Western-driven, technologically-obsessed, global mass culture gone philosophically adrift. Where evangelization and rational apologetics may fall flat in the Christian mission to share Gospel truth, Doyle’s humble aesthetics offer hope for an attractive renewal of Gospel authenticity. We are floating in little boats upon wine-dark oceans of truth, his writing seems to say. Who knows what all is down there, but drop a hook and let’s find out!

Doyle’s perception of his sacred work as a “story catcher” calls to mind the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse, which magnifies the sacred in the routine, the mundane, inverting our grasp of what is important. “There are no little things or events; / None. I am beginning to suspect that this is the theme of everything / I ever wrote or ever will write,” reads a Doyle proem from The Kind of Brave You Wanted to Be, his 2016 collection of “prose prayers and cheerful chants against the dark.” Such humble piety comes from the same mischief who often spoke with sincerity and reverence of giving darkness the middle finger.

The scholar-novelist Joshua Hren might not be so quick to let Doyle off the magic realist hook when he borrows Matthew Strecher’s definition of the genre as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” Regardless, Doyle’s world, in Mink River, in Chicago, in his homage to Robert Louis Stevenson, The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World, exhibits many characteristics of Hren’s contemplative realism. “In living literature,” Hren writes, “we suffer and praise with creation, the prose creates a grateful disposition prompting us to yearn for a vision of the whole.” If Hren, quoting Josef Pieper, is correct that “man’s ability to see is in decline,” Doyle’s entire corpus, fiction and non, is a friendly smiling lunge at readers with one purpose: to strip away and scatter the scales occluding our eyes.

In “His Last Game,” a heart-rending homage to his older brother Kevin, who died of cancer in 2012, Doyle recalls an afternoon spent together watching a pickup basketball game, savoring the canny play of an exhausted older athlete—a rare beauty that only these brothers could properly see and value from their own long mutual love and shared experience. “The beautiful thing,” Kevin says, in a passage in which Doyle again eschews direct quotation,

is the little thing that the old guy knew full well he wasn’t going to cut around picks and drift out into the corner again, that would burn his last gallon of gas, not to mention he would have to hoist up a shot from way out there, so he snakes the guy beautiful, he knows the kid thinks he’s old, and the guy with the hat sees him cut, and gets him the ball on a dime, that’s a beautiful thing because it’s little, and we saw it and we knew what it meant. You remember that for me.

Doyle’s quest for truth, whether we call his realism contemplative or something else, takes for granted that the scales over our eyes are of our own making. “His Last Game” suggests something more: that seeing, like other redemptive acts, may only be authentically and fully done in relationship. Seen alone by one brother, the game is just a game, its significance missed, its healing power lost, its meaning potentially inexpressible. Seen together—really seen and valued—it becomes a matter not merely of the senses and the mind but also of the heart. It becomes holy. It becomes a story.

“Without stories,” Doyle wrote, “we are only mammals with weapons.” If Doyle’s life traces the twentieth-century white Catholic migration from urban parishes and playgrounds to the quietist American edge-trimmer suburb, then his work speaks to the fissures and losses of that shift: the vanishing of cultures once thick with language and liturgy, neighborliness and story. We may read him in 2023 as a salve against a fractured American Catholicism that is little more than a subset of a fractured America. But even if such superficial wounds somehow heal, we will keep reading Brian Doyle because we will always yearn for stories about who we are and who we might be. We will read him because we want to get as close to the truth as we can. We read Brian Doyle, and will continue to read Brian Doyle, for as long as we remain in danger of losing each other in the dark.

Featured Image: Hortense Haudebourt Lescot, Young Woman Reading In An Interior, 1813; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


John Nagy

John Nagy is managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine at the University of Notre Dame. An award-winning feature writer, he is a degree candidate in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

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