Eight Whopping Lies
by brian doyle
franciscan media, 192 pages, $18.99
The biographical note at the back of Eight Whopping Lies, Brian Doyle’s latest and last collection of parcel-sized personal essays and achingly beautiful reflections on being fully alive, fully Catholic, and fully human, says that he was the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon, just so you don’t confuse it with that other Portland which is, not was, on the other side of the country. The author of many books, essays, poems, snippets, and shorts, “Brian James Patrick Doyle of New Yawk was cheerfully NOT the great Canadian novelist Brian Doyle, nor the astrophysicist Brian Doyle, nor the former Yankee baseball player Brian Doyle, nor even the terrific actor Brian Doyle-Murray. He was, let’s say, the ambling shambling Oregon writer Brian Doyle, and he was happy to have been so.”
Brian Doyle's ambling shambling style has given me bags and bags of happiness over the years. He wrote short (the best and most prayerful way), and I have frequently taken five or seven minutes out of a spare part of the day to commune with his forward-tumbling paragraphs and cascading sentences, admiring their intricate construction, delighting in their whimsy, astonished by their unlikely sturdiness while carrying all that weight all that distance with all those commas. Brian Doyle’s lines paint portraits in miniature of the silly and the sinful, the thorny grace of it all.
You’re not alone out here. That’s what a Brian Doyle essay says. I am with you. He is with you. We are all together. Now let’s get on with it.
If his style was unconventional, it was also unique and it was also good, which is the main thing. You can be as unconventional as you want as a writer, your sentences can curl around the block and back again, picking up trash and planting tulips along the way, but probably nobody will meet them back at your front door offering to publish or pay for them if they aren’t good. Brian Doyle’s stuff wasn’t just good, it was the best; and he published a lot of it, in a lot of different places. You could read him in U.S. Catholic or First Things, Harvard Review or St. Anthony Messenger. That’s what infielders call range.
The finest Brian Doyle pieces were so good they made you laugh. It was the laughter of admiration, the way you involuntarily exhale and toss your head back when Robert DeNiro or Meryl Streep says a line in a movie so well and so cool and so true that you can’t do anything but laugh, even when the line is not meant to be funny or when someone’s wrapped in a rug and getting crammed into the trunk of a car. It’s funny because it's so unbelievably good and most things are unbelievably bad and a good surprise is worth a good giggle. Sometimes laughter, not imitation, is the highest form of flattery.
I laughed in my own quiet way when I read “His Last Game” for the first time. Nine hundred sixty-five words plus 34 periods in a single paragraph; for my money, and I don’t have much, it’s the apotheosis of this particular form of scribbling. Typically I would pause and give a brief description of what makes “His Last Game” so heartbreaking and so funny, but I won’t, because I don’t want to rob you of the experience of laughing in your own quiet way when you read it for the first time. It’s online; you can find it if you look, and you will be glad that you did. It’s luminous.
I smiled in my heart when I read “A Prayer for You and Yours,” the final entry in this latest and last collection. “I boiled all my prayers as a parent down to this one: Take me instead of them,” wrote Brian James Patrick Doyle of New Yawk, and not at all in an ambling shambling way. “I don’t think I ever fully understood the deep almost inexplicable love of the Christ for us, why he would accept his own early tortured death as a sacrifice, until I had been a father for a while.”
Amen to all that.
There’s a reason why the biographical note on “Eight Whopping Lies” says that Brian Doyle was, not is, the editor of Portland Magazine. He died earlier this year from a malignant tumor in his brain that would not stop growing, that would not turn around and go home and leave him here with us, where he gave so much of himself in such an intimate and inspiring way, and where he sunk baskets and threaded passes just as joyfully as he threaded his prose. I was sad when I learned of his illness, and sadder still when I read that he had died. I never met the man, so it felt wrong to cry, so I’ll just say that his life was a beautiful thing. I saw it, and I knew what it meant.
Matthew Hennessey writes from Connecticut.