I like to think “better late than never” when it comes to discovering an author.
Brian Doyle died at 60 in May 2017, only months after he won an Oregon Book Award for his young adult novel “Martin Marten.”
Doyle was a former New Yorker, the son of a newspaperman and a teacher who made his mark in this state and dedicated himself largely to its wonders on the coast and elsewhere.
A former editor of the University of Portland’s Portland Magazine, Doyle was nominated for the Oregon Book Award nine times and finally won in 2016 for “Martin Marten.” As deeply as his characters correlate their lives with his fiction debut, “Mink River,” Doyle affiliated himself with the Oregon Coast, especially the North Coast, promoting and sharing his work at Get Lit at the Beach, the city’s signature literary gathering.
Doyle was an advocate for young people, providing workshops for students in Cannon Beach, Seaside and Astoria.
Watt Childress of Jupiter’s Books called Doyle a “masterful, lyrical writer, with a heart the size of Mount Hood.”
In a 2014 reading, Doyle “relayed stories like prayers,” Childress said.
At the same event, Cannon Beach’s internationally renowned novelist Terry Brooks called Doyle “one of the best writers he’s ever read.”
This week, Childress compared Doyle to the singer/songwriter Van Morrison. “Somehow I think of them in tandem. When you mention the lyricism. There’s just so much feeling packed in there. Damn! The good folks just don’t live long enough.”
‘Just sit down and play’
I chose “Mink River” out of all Doyle’s books, essays and poetry after randomly pulling it off the library shelf.
I was so enthralled I bought a used copy for myself, coincidentally signed by the author “To David.” (David, wherever you are, shame on you for parting with this autographed edition!)
“Mink River” takes you on an inner trail, a serpent’s tail that pulls at the connections in your mind, paints a multilayered canvas and provides raw material for a fellow writer’s toolkit, which is never full enough.
Ottesa Moshfegh, a young writer profiled in The New Yorker in July, wrote: “Writing to me, is more musical than I think it is literary a lot of the time — the way that a voice can sound and the way that it leads the reader in a sort of virtual reality, a journey through its own consciousness.”
Doyle could have easily said the same.
“Don’t think when you write,” Doyle said at Get Lit. “Your head is probably your worst enemy. Just sit down and play. And listen to what needs to be said.”
Writing, he said, is “taking an idea out for a walk.”
In “Mink River,” Doyle doesn’t walk, he runs. The setting is the fictional Oregon Coast town of Neawanaka, a hybrid name like Ursula K. Le Guin’s fictional “Seaview,” another tribute to our shores.
“I have visited the coast very often,” Doyle said in a 2011 interview with the Gazette’s Erin Bernard. “Central and north, and wanted very much to sing and celebrate the hard brave sweet wet wild life there; one of the most delicious comments I have had was from a reader on the coast who said this book is true to life here; that to me was a great honor. I so wanted it to be true fiction, you know?”
For this reader, what strikes me most is the book’s mournful prose.
Deep, drenching sadness that immerses us in not only the rich outdoor lives of coastal Oregonians in the fictional city of Neawanaka, but leads us into an epidermal layer of pain, sadness and loss.
What more can we ask from a writer than to say he has changed the way we look at the world around us?
Doyle reaches more to William Butler Yeats and Dylan Thomas than American authors like John Updike or John Cheever, exquisite interior monologuists both. Perhaps it is the Irish brogue that permeates the characters of the O’Donnell clan, an unforgettable lineage descended from the unforgettable Red Hugh, “a master curser who starts cursing before he even gets out of bed.”
Red Hugh can still get a “good burst” going, Doyle writes, “although he can’t sustain an hour’s worth of snarling invective like he could in the old days.”
Doyle’s fabulous crow, Moses, a full-blown, walking, talking, flying character, possesses the gift of speech, which he puts to good use in aiding and abetting the life and well-being of the residents of Neawanaka. Moses makes “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” look like a pipsqueak.
Even the bears and creatures of the forest are given full throat. Witness the bear and her two cubs as they “trundle in rugged parade order, fascinated by bees and berries.”
Doyle is as plaintive as the ouzels he portrays — festive singing water birds — among the crawdads and water striders. His narration blurs the line between human and animal consciousness to the point where nature itself is communicating, reminding us of the chirping, mewing and mooing around us — the language of animals.
The sentences are long, lingering, reciting lists but never listing, with a cascade of revelations ending with a punch line to the gut.
Childress guided me to another work by Doyle, “Spirited Men: Story, Soul and Substance.” The 2004 collection is notable for its profile of Van Morrison (which will send you scrambling to YouTube for live clips of the great and soulful rocker); contemplations of the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond; and an exploration of the clerical themes of 20th-century novelist Graham Greene.
Doyle, like Greene, was a master of many genres, a literary omnivore, capable of dissecting a wolverine; appreciating and one-upping a quick wit or appraising a pinot noir. Such writers are all too rare in any decade.
Reading his tales of death, loneliness, love and natural magic, I am grateful for the legacy of work he left behind.
“People ask for him,” Childress said. “But not enough. Maybe his name has not risen to the point where people are requesting him as much as he deserves. He’s the kind of person that’s going to be here and stick around, and people are going to come back again and again to read and enjoy.”
R.J. Marx is The Daily Astorian’s South County reporter and editor of the Seaside Signal and Cannon Beach Gazette.
“Mink River” will be the featured work of Cannon Beach Reads, a program from the Cannon Beach Library on Sept. 19.