- Addendum to the Essay-Lover's Guide to Brian Doyle
When last we met in these pages, I was holding forth about the many virtues and beauties of Brian Doyle's twenty-eight books, most of them essay collections, all of them essayistic (whether they were labeled novels or prayers or proems or what have you). Established was the fact that Brian had died in May 2017 of brain cancer and that his last two books, Eight Whopping Lies and Hoop, were published posthumously. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, his friends David James Duncan, Chip Blake, and Katie Yale had a great idea. Given that most of Brian's essay collections were published by small Catholic presses with little budget, they would sell a "selected essays" book to a major publisher, and the advance and subsequent royalties would benefit Brian's wife, Mary, and their three children. Duncan got Doyle's enthusiastic blessing on the endeavor before he passed away. The three editors secured a contract with Little, Brown, and set to work culling the best of Brian's essays from three decades of writing and publishing. They called their work in production The Book of Brian Doyle, which name I love for its simplicity and scriptural resonance. Of course, Little, Brown's marketing department had other ideas, surely aiming to appeal to a broad audience, including, especially, those as yet unfamiliar with Doyle's essays. So they called the book One Long River of Song, a phrase Doyle coined nigh two decades ago in a rapturous review of a Van Morrison concert at the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington, in the [End Page 239] middle of a long essay-encomium called "Van." "He sang fast and furiously, no more than a few seconds between songs, and many times the songs slid one into another without boundaries, as if they were one long river of song, Van keeping the music in the air at all times with his breath alone." So I like this title, too, and it certainly works metaphorically to describe Brian Doyle's writing style, and he'd likely accept the description, self-referential though it may be, given his love of rivers and song and length (especially of sentences). As Duncan notes in his enthusiastic foreword to the book: "When [Brian] intuited the approaching roar of a whitewater rapid in his imagination, he paddled steady on, refusing to portage round even the wildest water. The prose that resulted made timid readers feel as though they'd been thrown into a kayak and sent careering down a literary equivalent of Idaho's Payette River during spring runoff."
If that sounds appealing to you (as it does to me), then you'll love this book. And especially if you know some of Doyle's work but haven't yet bought all twenty-eight previous books, here you'll find the greatest hits to whet your appetite or tide you over or maybe satisfy all your Brian Doyle essay needs forever (after all, this book is designed to find new readers for this wonderful work). And even if you're a longtime fan of Doyle's essays and have all the other books, even the out-of-print ones and the one that's published only in Australia, you'll find here a convenient package including so many of his best essays (six of his seven Best American Essays, for instance) along with a handful of essays that don't appear in any other books. There are eighty-one essays in all, most of them short, most of them joyful, though some of them angry, all of them exuberant, headlong, spilling forth with contagious emotion, imparting wisdom and inspiration for better ways to be, to become truer essayists not just in how we write but in how we live.
With these goals in mind, I recently taught One Long River of Song to two classes of undergraduates. From what I could tell, all of my students loved the book. And for at least some of them, the book really was life...