Brian Doyle’s One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder
Reviewed by Ana Maria Spagna
Little, Brown & Co. | 2019 | 217 pages
We lost Brian Doyle—essayist, novelist, mentor, and friend—more than a year ago now, and it’s still so damned hard. And not just for me. Brian was beloved as a person and an author.
Setting aside his fine novels and book-length nonfiction, Doyle was an essayist first, and he was underappreciated for far too long, even as his essays—hundreds of them—appeared regularly in Orion, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Sun, and American Scholar, plus in more Best of anthologies than you can cram on three shelves, not to mention in his monthly editor’s column in Portland magazine.
Editors Katie Yale and David James Duncan have culled through all of Doyle’s essays to gather more than 80 for the posthumous collection One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder, which was published in December 2019. As a testament to its popularity, by mid-January 2020 the book had already gone through three printings.
What strikes me at first about this book is a familiar irony: as an uncontested master of the I-centered genre of personal essay, Doyle’s gaze turns insistently outward. These pages feature musings on, among other topics, sturgeon, fishers, raptors, otters, hummingbirds, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, parents, and strangers who are not-strangers—all of us, any of us.
In “The Old Methodist Church on Vashon Island,” Doyle describes how he experienced attendees at book signings:
I have Learned that mostly they do not want my scribble as Much as they want to say something to me. So often What they say is quiet and haunting and just Enough of their deepest self that you both just stand There startled and quiet for an instant with that story Between you like it slid out without any forethought; A sort of jailbreak…
Hear the voice? Earnest, plainspoken, folksy even. He tosses in “mostly” and “just” and “sort of” and “so often” and “you.” Always “you.” He dances around the personal pronoun, exposing his deepest thoughts as “yours” and getting away with it.
Not that Doyle avoids center stage. When he does step up, playful and exuberant as ever, he’s unabashedly critical and self-critical. “Mea Culpa” begins with the bald admission, “I laughed at gay people. I did. I snickered at their crew cuts and sashay and flagrancy,” and ends, simply, with “Never again.”
“Brian Doyle Interviews Brian Doyle,” which is not about Brian Doyle at all, lists more than 100 writers with unvarnished opinions. John Updike, he argues, was a better literary critic than Edmund Wilson, who “couldn’t hold Updike’s jock when it comes to literary essays.” Mostly this essay is a praise song, a litany of names like a litany of saints. Doyle, after all, wore his Catholicism on his sleeve as proudly as his love of literature.
Doyle embraced big abstractions—love, grace, grief, faith, hope, and God—in a way that was sincere but never cloying. These essays are “for the spiritual and nonspiritual alike.” They are thoughtful, but not cerebral; funny but not wry. You’ll find nothing arrogant, a word he abhors, and much that’s gentle, a word he loves. You do not have to read Doyle long to make a list of words he abhors and words he adores.
Doyle’s agile prose, his rapacious humanity, never strays far from the body. In the essay, “Illuminos,” he celebrates physicality: “One child held on to my left pinky finger everywhere we went. Never any other finger and never the right pinky but only the left pinky and never my whole hand.” And onward through a paragraph of embodied hand-holding and later, trouser-tugging. By the time he gets to his punchline, that children are “agents of an unimaginable love,” he’s earned his pronouncement with these precise gestures, all tenderness in motion. (Consider, too, the embodiment of love in the crescendo of the last paragraph of “Joyas Voladoras”: “the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair…” Try to read that one without tearing up.)
The organization—the reticulation—of the essays is another great delight of One Long River of Song. There’s no separation of essays about animals from those about books or children or cowardice or humility or the human heart. They run like a river, around rocks; they separate and merge. “Irreconcilable Dissonance,” about how divorce informs every marriage, sits five short pages from “Raptorous,” an ode to raptors that is indeed rapturous. The pithy “Twenty Things the Dog Ate” is tucked a mere eight pages from “On Not Beating Cancer.”
No matter the essay, no matter the order, the sensibility is the same. Just as water in a river is the same. And blood coursing through a beating heart? Same. Even as he approaches the unfathomable. No one wrote more poignantly about 9/11 than Brian Doyle did in “Leap.” Then comes Sandy Hook, 20 children and six of their teachers shot dead, and we get “Dawn and Mary.” For a writer whose work brimmed with joy, his best known—and arguably his best—essays are about tragedy. In the end, Doyle’s grace outpaces his wisdom or humor or wordplay.
There are essays missing here, of course, some that I adore like “How We Wrestle Is Who We Are” from Orion and “Imagining Foxes” from Brevity. Some seem brand new, though I’d convinced myself I’d read them all. (Some he’d sent to me—as he did to all his many friends—as appendums to businessy emails. He’d finish a curt correspondence with “Thought you’d get a giggle out of this” and attach a couple of gems.)
But this collection, almost impossibly, feels whole. It begins with “Joyas Voladoras,” as beautiful an essay as exists in the English language, and ends with “Last Prayer,” in which Doyle hopes to meet his late friend Peter in the afterlife and, moreover, to find him reincarnated as an otter. Why? Because “Otters rule. And so: Amen.”
And so. We have to let Brian go, we’ve had to, and it’s excruciating. I feared reading the book would be excruciating, too. But it’s not. His essays are a gift to me, to you—the big “you” to whom he always reached out, grinning, another of his favorite words. Be grateful for otters and fishers and moles and children. And the words he left us.
Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in the North Cascades. Her books include three collections of essays—Uplake, Potluck, and Now Go Home—for which she owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Brian Doyle.