Tribute to Brian Doyle
Brian Doyle's work has affected his readers personally, deeply, with signature style that wields language so skillfully that when you come to the end of an essay like "Leap" or "Dawn and Mary" or "Joyas Voladoras" or "The Greatest Nature Essay Ever" there's not much to do except sit back, exhale, and marvel that there was such a writer who understood the world and its words in this way. Assay has asked friends to write on their favorite Doyle piece, offering the kind of analysis that is unique to them. It's easy to find personal tributes to the wonderful man Brian Doyle was, but as his work continues to light our paths, Assay believes his work deserves deep attention and analysis in addition to appreciation.
"...but then there would suddenly be a sharp sentence where the dagger enters your heart and the essay spins on a dime like a skater, and you are plunged into waaay deeper water, you didn’t see it coming at all, and you actually shiver, your whole body shimmers, and much later, maybe when you are in bed with someone you love and you are trying to evade his or her icy feet, you think, my god, stories do have roaring power, stories are the most crucial and necessary food, how come we never hardly say that out loud?"
And so, we take this opportunity, in this space, to say so out loud.
You and I know this story, it’s the story of Sandy Hook Elementary. We know the outline, we know what happened. But what Brian Doyle does in “Dawn and Mary” is not only dazzling, it is deeply moving—he shifts the narrative focus. For many of us, Sandy Hook is a day of terror, and Doyle helps reveal, sentence by sentence something deeply human: courage, too, existed that day. Click here to continue reading.
Following the death of Brian Doyle, Assay asked me to offer a tribute using “The Paragraph of the Week” format that I created for my website The Humble Essayist. All of us who knew or met Brian or read his essays are aware that he had a huge heart—but how big was it? I chose a paragraph from “Leap” which is set against a backdrop of one of the world’s greatest atrocities on 9/11 so that we can take its measure. The essay is about a couple who held hands as they leapt to their deaths from a burning skyscraper. Click here to continue reading.
I bird because I love the idea of flight. I bird because I admire and adore another being’s ability to defy the ties that bind me to the earth. I bird because the song of a wood thrush drifting through a spring-green rain-wet woodland buoys my spirit. I bird because I wanted once and still yet crave the freedom of wings. As I birded part-time I morphed into an ornithologist because my love bloomed into full time and that unabashed affection for the avian kind spilled over into my work life. I couldn’t compartmentalize. In that love of all things bird I’ve become Avem cupido perserverans; the one who desires birds constantly. My heart, I think, was made for birds. Click here to continue reading.
Brian Doyle wrote thousands of essays (no exaggeration), which tempers my sorrow a little bit (there will always be more to read), including seven that were discovered and recognized as Best American Essays. I will talk here about the last, the most recent of these, “His Last Game,” which appeared in Notre Dame Magazine in Autumn 2012. Since then, it has been available online, and it now includes a new header about Brian’s death, so I will hope and assume that it will remain available. Please go read the essay now. I’ll wait. Click here to continue reading.
This essay is about a heart, and it also beats like a heart and, at its heart, reveals a truth about life, yes, as all Doyle’s essays do, but also about essay writing.
The essay starts with a story, a plaintive one—a child who almost died—told plainly with characteristic humor.
“MY SON LIAM was born ten years ago. He looked like a cucumber on steroids. He was fat and bald and round as a cucumber on steroids. He looked healthy as a horse. He wasn’t. He was missing a chamber in his heart.”
There’s no decoration, no toying with readers, making us wonder what happened to the boy. We know by the end of the paragraph that the child lives. The tone of those plain declarative sentences—“He looked…” “He was …” “He looked …” “He wasn’t…” “He was…”— is part Catholic Mass (“He took the bread, broke it, gave it to his disciples…”) and part Joe Friday. Just the facts, Ma’am. Doyle describes the surgery and how his son, as a ten year-old, asks him about it, and from there, we move straight into the excruciating uncertainty of a father waiting to hear if his son will live or die or worse. Click here to continue reading.