Discovering Brian Doyle

By Bill Henderson
Brian Doyle in 2012 Sam Beebe

On Saturday evening Bruce Willis and a troupe of noted actors will fly into town to celebrate at Guild Hall the writings and life of Brian Doyle.

Just another summer celebrity event in the Hamptons, you might think. We are awash in celebrities. But Brian Doyle was not a celebrity, and only a few people have had the good fortune to know his work. I myself have never met him in person or talked to him.

Even so, to my mind, Doyle is one of the great but unknown authors of recent times. I first encountered him 10 years ago via a piece submitted to the annual small press anthology I edit, “The Pushcart Prize.” It was a nomination from The American Scholar titled “Joyas Voladoras,” and is a rumination on hearts: the heart of the hummingbird, the blue whale, we humans. It is a brief work of art that will change your life. Here’s a sample:

“Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird’s heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil eraser . . . each one visits a thousand flowers a day. . . . The biggest heart in the world is inside the blue whale. It weighs more than seven tons. It’s as big as a room. . . . So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. . . . We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart.”

Brian would go on to win three more Pushcart Prizes for his brief essays and memoirs from journals like Oregon Humanities, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. His essay “The Wonder of the Look on Her Face,” a marvelous pondering on the nature of writing, is included in next year’s Pushcart Prize.

We lost Brian Doyle last year from a brain tumor. He was 60, with years of stories and poems left. 

But who was he?

For starters, he was the editor of Portland Magazine, a literary journal at the University of Portland in Oregon. The review’s circulation was minimal, and yet over the years he attracted and published the work of writers like Ian Frazier, Mary Gordon, Barry Lopez, William Stafford, and Edward Hoagland.

Much of his own writing was published by small presses like Orbis Books, Franciscan Media, and Sorin Books. His novels include “Mink River” and “The Plover,” and there are many collections of essays, poems, and stories.

His writing is like nothing else I have read, and — from Cynthia Ozick to Pico Iyer — I am not alone in my unwavering admiration for him.

Here he is again in a meditation titled “Cool Things”: 

“I sing a song of things that make us grin and bow, that just for an instant let us see sometimes the web and weave of merciful, the endless possible, the incomprehensible inexhaustible inexplicable yes. . . .”

In his last book, “Eight Whopping Lies,” just published by Franciscan Media, Brian’s dad, Jim, provides a eulogy for his son: “In his essays and poems, in his person, we learned his passion for God’s creation — us marvelous human beings and the other creatures of our world — denizens of the woods, waters, and skies. He was surely one of America’s best storytellers . . . showing God’s love for us.”

I couldn’t have said it better. Brian Doyle’s work deserves to be read, to be heard, to be praised, and thanks to Bruce Willis and company, and especially to Cedering Fox — the indomitable producer and spirit behind WordTheatre (and daughter of the late acclaimed poet Siv Cedering of Sagaponack) — he will be celebrated here on Saturday night.

His books are available from all independent bookstores. And read him you must. May I suggest you start with his short essay collection “A Book of Uncommon Prayer.” It will blow your socks off (if you are wearing socks this summer), as Brian might have said.

Rest in peace, my friend Brian whom I never met. I feel I can talk to you now. Your spirit pervades the universe.


Bill Henderson publishes the Pushcart Prize anthologies. His memoir “All My Dogs” is now out in paperback. He lives in Springs.