ONE LONG RIVER OF SONG
Notes on Wonder
By Brian Doyle
If you are in love with language, here is how you will read Brian Doyle’s posthumous collection of essays: by underlining sentences and double-underlining other sentences; by sometimes shading in the space between the two sets of lines so as to create a kind of D.I.Y. bolded font; by marking whole astonishing paragraphs with a squiggly line in the margin, and by highlighting many of those squiggle-marked sections with a star to identify the best of the astonishing lines therein; by circling particularly original or apt phrases, like “this blistering perfect terrible world” and “the chalky exhausted shiver of my soul” and “the most arrant glib foolish nonsense and frippery”; and, finally, by dog-earing whole pages, and then whole essays, because there is not enough ink in the world to do justice to such annotations, slim as this book is and so full of white space, too.
Brian Doyle died in 2017 at 60 of complications from a brain tumor. He left behind seven novels, six collections of poems and 13 essay collections. The whole time he was writing, he was also working full time as the editor of Portland Magazine.
[ This collection was one of our most anticipated books of December. See the full list. ]
It’s an amazing creative output, but Doyle was never famous. In 2012 The Iowa Review called him “a writer’s writer, unknown to the best-seller or even the good-seller lists, a Townes Van Zandt of essayists, known by those in the know.” If there is a God — and Doyle fervently believed there is — “One Long River of Song” will change all that. This book is what Van Zandt’s greatest hits would look like had he lived to be 60, and if every song on the record hit the bar set by “Pancho and Lefty.”
Doyle was a practicing Catholic who wrote frequently about his faith, but this book carries not a whiff of sanctity or orthodoxy. The God of “One Long River of Song” is a kindergartner wearing a stegosaurus hat, a United States postal worker with preternatural patience (“God was manning the counter from 1 to 5, as he does every blessed day”), the “coherent mercy” that cannot be apprehended but may be perceived by way of “the music in and through and under all things.”
God’s acolyte is Doyle himself, missing not a single gorgeous blessing in a life so full of love it spilled over into essay after essay after essay. This book is made up almost entirely of praise songs, often for the people Doyle loved — wife, children, parents, brothers, sisters, friends — but just as often for the natural world of shrews and hummingbirds and hawks and sturgeon and fishers and great blue herons and pretty much every other creature he happened to encounter. Doyle was a writer “made of love and song and amusement.” Every living thing intrigued him and was worthy of his powerful capacity for study and his equally powerful capacity for celebration.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss this writer as only a psalmist of birdsong and singing creek and the gentle, patient wisdom of postal workers. Doyle was also both hilarious and fierce, and I took as much pleasure from watching him address a denizen of the gun-rights coalition as “dear outraged shrieking lunatic,” or describe certain members of the Catholic hierarchy as “arrogant pompous nominal bosses issuing proclamations and denouncing dissent,” as I took from lingering over the loveliest descriptions of the natural world I have ever read.
In “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever,” Doyle sets out the principles of effective nature writing so succinctly that it is arguably a two-page master class in environmental writing. It also offers a fit description of the experience of reading this remarkable book: “a feeling eerily like a warm hand brushed against your cheek, and you sit there, near tears, smiling, and then you stand up. Changed.”
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