Little, Brown, 2019. $27, 272 pages.
WHO WAS Brian Doyle? He was a hilarious writer and a heartbroken man. He was a scamp, and he was as close to a holy man as any of us will ever meet. He wrote like an angel, some say like Faulkner, and he wrote like a fire hose. He was a smitten husband and besotted father, and he was a grateful son — of God and of a journalist named Jim. He wrote profoundly about the mystery of grace, and he wrote as profoundly about newts. He celebrated the brilliance of small children and the ferocity of hawks. He wore a beard, sometimes damp with rueful tears, and wire-rimmed glasses with moral lenses. He was in love with the whole world, and in the end the world turned on him, killing him long before his time.
I was friends with Brian, as were many. His friends refused to let his work die. After Brian’s devastating surgery for a brain tumor, David James Duncan asked his permission to put together a collection of his best, most beloved essays. Please understand: Brian had by that time published eight novels, six books of poetry, and fourteen essay collections. Selecting the greatest hits would be a formidable task for the committee of friends: David; Chip Blake, Orion’s editor-in-chief; and Katie Yale, special projects editor at Orion. It speaks worlds about Brian’s beautiful prose that for the “best and most beloved” essays, they would choose no fewer than eighty-one.
Creating a book from a stack of essays requires the mosaic artistry of a stained glass window. The editors select a piece that is full of light and rich in color, maybe a small story about a post office clerk. They shape it, smooth its edges, and choose its place next to another luminous story, maybe about free beer. And so it goes, one brilliant cobalt or ruby pane after another; maybe this next is a story about the smell of low tide. Finally, all the small pieces — each a beautiful, true thing in itself — together create a larger picture that is true in an entirely new and astonishing way.
What truth is revealed when the light shines through the collected essays of Brian Doyle? Maybe this: You might think that your days are unremarkable. You would be wrong. Each day is full of wild and wonderful gifts: a foul ball, a fountain pen holding the words for many stories, a glimpse of a stooping hawk, the glance of a woman, a senator, a goat. “This lush, troubled world, so ferociously lovely, so plundered and raped and endangered, is itself a seething river of divine love,” Brian wrote. The work he asks of us all, “the active prayer,” is to cherish the reeling world, to protect it, to return its love in humility and compassion. Combined in One Long River of Song, Brian’s glowing essays create a vision of what a good person might be, what a good life surely is, a larger story of the transformative power of joyful gratitude.
Kathleen Dean Moore is a philosopher who writes about the moral urgency of climate action in her recent books Moral Ground, Great Tide Rising, and Piano Tide.