EVERY DAY BRINGS NEWS of brokenness wars, feuds, murders, divorces, epidemics, betrayals, extinctions — and, not surprisingly, much art of our day mirrors that brokenness. Rarely, a contrary spirit, fully aware of the world’s wounds, chooses to celebrate healing. Brian Doyle has brought such a spirit to his essays and to his work as editor of Portland Magazine; now he dramatizes the work of healing in his first book of fiction, a rambunctious novel set in a small town on the Oregon coast.
Perched on the shifting boundary between land and sea, between realism and myth, the town of Neawanaka hosts some five hundred human souls who suffer a host of ills. A veteran has been traumatized by war, a sculptor sinks into depression, a fisherman disappears into the Pacific, a salesman withers from cancer, a woman struggles against the grip of alcohol and promiscuity, a girl is molested by her father, the father shoots the policeman who rescues her, a boy rides his bicycle over a cliff and smashes his legs, native people recall the brutal history that destroyed their culture, and nearly everyone is estranged from the wild matrix we call nature.
Against all that brokenness, Doyle sets a colorful cast of healers. There is the town’s solitary policeman, who breaks up fights and helps people find their way home. There is a priest who comforts those in grief. There is a repairman who fixes damaged artifacts, from the bent bicycle to a storm-tossed boat. There is a doctor who sets the boy’s shattered legs, protects the sexually abused girl, looks after the man dying of cancer, and attends the ailing regardless of their ability to pay. The mother of the sculptor eases her daughter out of depression by taking her on a trek to the source of the river that gives the novel its name. A nun teaches a crow to talk, and the chatty crow helps mend the breach between humans and other species.
Chief among the healers are two older men who constitute the Department of Public Works, and who understand their mission as one not merely of unclogging drains or installing stop signs, but of relieving pain wherever they detect it. One of the men literally smells pain, the other learned compassion on a battlefield, and both feel acutely the suffering of others. These partners are only two of the novel’s several grand talkers who draw together the scattered pieces of the past, and soothe old wounds, with the medicine of storytelling.
Another of those storytellers, a schoolteacher descended from the Salish people who once inhabited the place known as Neawanaka, recalls an ancestor’s “riverine speaking style.” That phrase aptly describes Brian Doyle’s own style here, a boisterous, mercurial, leapfrogging language that carries us headlong through what his narrator calls “the incalculable ocean of stories.” What we learn on the journey, or what we reconfirm, is that our clever species, so prone to causing damage, is also adept at repair.