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Lindsay SchlegelMay 05, 2023
Brian Doyle in a 2012 photo, (CNS photo/Tim LaBarge)

Every so often, a person carries a childlike stance of openness and vulnerability to wonder into adulthood. Brian Doyle, who died in 2017 after a short battle with cancer, was one such blessed anomaly in the literary landscape. Doyle worked (or better, played) with a variety of forms. He wrote essays, prose poems, adult novels, articles (including over a dozen pieces for America), even a young adult novel. His writing stands apart in many ways, not the least of which is its focus on children. Doyle's work hums with an undercurrent that honors children and invites the reader to adopt their posture of innocence.

The typical toddler can squat for an interminable period of time, never tiring, quads not burning, lactic acid not building, no need for a fitness instructor to count down the seconds until he can stand upright again. The observatory stance is the child’s resting posture, a superpower second only to his or her sense of wonder at the veins of a leaf, the eyes of a toad, the stretch of a worm after the rain. Writing from this perspective, Doyle understood stories to be “prayers of terrific power,” and his readings are punctuated by “Amens.”

The writing of Brian Doyle, who died in 2017, hummed with an undercurrent that honors children and invites the reader to adopt their posture of innocence.

Born into a large Irish Catholic family in New York City, Brian James Patrick Doyle “was soaked in stories from the start.” His father was a journalist and executive director of the Catholic Press Association; his mother was a gifted storyteller. Doyle adored his family, and his six brothers and one sister appear often in his essays. His prose poem (what Doyle called a “proem”) “The Tender Next Minute” invites the reader to return with him to the breath-stealing delight of a pause in chase. Doyle writes that he is in a hedge with two of his brothers for an instant “that I want to sing/ Here for a moment”: “we were smiling/ And thrilled and frightened and sunlight rippled through/ The tiny yellow flowers of the bushes.…/ You were there too, remember, in your childhood cave.”

For Doyle, childhood is delight, awe, power, joy and above all, grace. How can adults not spend time and creative energy remembering and celebrating it? Even contemplating roughhousing with his brothers conjures a pose of adoration:

[Y]ou would think the accumulated violence would have bred dislike or bitterness or vengeful urges, but I report with amazement that it did not.… Remember the crash of bodies, and the grapple in the grass, and the laughing pile on the rug, for that was the thrum of our love.

Doyle’s humble tears testify to his appreciation of the family he raised with his wife, Mary—especially because for a time that family seemed out of reach. He describes his first prayers as a father as the tears he cried when he and his wife were “told by a doctor, bluntly and directly and inarguably, that we would not be graced by children.” Doyle writes in his essay “Yes” of that in-between time: “For there were many nights before my children came to me on magic wooden boats from seas unknown that I wished desperately for them, that I cried because they had not yet come.”

For Doyle, childhood is delight, awe, power, joy and above all, grace. How can adults not spend time and creative energy remembering and celebrating it?

Once they had a daughter and twin sons, again he found himself crying every couple of weeks “for what seems like no reason at all; and I know it is because we were blessed with children, three of them, three long wild prayers; and they are the greatest gifts a profligate Mercy ever granted shuffling muddled me.” Doyle’s fatherly love and joy shine throughout his work in every form. Here is a man who understood the beauty, the irreplaceability, the gift of even the shortest life, and who stood in awe and humility before this grace without ceasing.

Liam, one of Doyle’s sons, was born with a heart one chamber short, requiring surgeries at 5 and 18 months and likely a heart transplant a few decades thereafter, all of which became the subject matter for Doyle’s book, The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of the Heart. Of the times after these first two successful surgeries, Doyle writes, “But the days pass in their swirl and whirl and swing and song, and every day he doesn’t die again, and that knocks me out.”

Coupled with his reverence for childhood, the struggle to have children and the prospect of losing one of his children so young manifests itself in Doyle’s work as a witness to children’s unique holiness. In “Weal,” he writes, “But the most miraculous of all our gifts is children; without them we would laugh less, we would be bereft of innocence, we would lose hope, we would shrivel and vanish, with no one to remember what we so wished to be.”

And so a child stands at the fore of Mink River, Doyle’s first novel. The novel is the story of a town, or of a family, or perhaps of a town that is a family. A boy named Daniel has a bicycle accident and shatters the bones in both his legs. Doyle’s experience with Liam is filtered through lines from Daniel’s father, Owen: “His legs are all smashed. His knees are all smashed. My little boy.... He’s all smashed.” Daniel’s family and community rally around him. Not only does Daniel survive, but he encourages Owen to travel back to his native Ireland and reconcile with his own mother. Daniel is broken for a time, then leads his father to a richer, more loving life.

Likewise, in The Plover, the follow-up to Mink River, Declan’s friend “had been wounded by a storm, this guy, his little daughter hit by a bus driver when she was five years old waiting for the kindergarten bus, and his light was dimmed, and by now no one thought he would ever get it back.” The girl, Pipa, seems broken and incommunicative on the outside, but within she lives vibrantly: she can speak to animals and she is far more aware of the state and size of her soul than her father or Declan. She, too, offers the adults in her life hope and a measure of redemption.

With what some might call a uniquely Catholic point of view and others would recognize as simply a matter of common sense, Doyle draws unborn children characters with the same indisputable dignity as those out of the womb. Setting a scene of a young family, Doyle writes, “On Saturday Sara and Michael and the girls, three of them if you count the one in Sara’s womb, have breakfast together.” Later, another expectant mother loses a baby, and though the child’s mother can’t bestow a name on this child, the narrator does: Inch. The child is

born into the river…on and on he tumbles and whirls…his heart hammering, his arms and legs milling wildly, his eyes open, his mouth open…but as he nears the sea he fails, he fades…and just as he is startled by salt for the first and last time in the eleven minutes of his life he closes his eyes, puts his thumb in his mouth, and enters the ancient endless patient ocean, where all stories end, where all stories are born.

Doyle handles an otherwise unseen scene with grace; he observes the child with great love and compassion. To love children is to love life, and to love life is to honor death.

Doyle’s writing has the potential to stir this generation and the next to put down their smartphones and gape at every life with childlike wonder.

Near the end of the novel, a police officer, Michael, is recognized for his heroic sacrifice in apprehending a man who sexually assaulted his daughter. The governor awards Michael a medal, saying, “I have seen much, and now that my own service is about to end, I can be frank about what is important, as opposed to what we say is important. Children are important, and serving each other is important…and everything else is not as important.” How natural it is to imagine such language coming from Doyle himself.

Indeed, the protagonist of Chicago, modeled on a younger Doyle, relates an anecdote of a child lost and another found, a story that “above all others stays with me still,” given by the seasoned street officer, Matthew. Matthew sees the child, Muirin, every other day, “and you will too, if you keep your eyes peeled. Next time I see him I will point him out.” Should we learn to look with Doyle’s eyes, we won’t need Matthew’s gesturing; we will recognize the holiness, the mystery, the power in children for ourselves.

Doyle passed away in May 2017 at age 60, just six months after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. When asked how friends, fans and fellow writers could help him, his response was simple: “Be tender and laugh.” His greatest fear was not being able to support his family any longer; a crowd-funded campaign set up by a family friend helped ease his mind. He is remembered for his “fervor for storytelling and his unqualified joy in writing.”

Doyle’s writing has the potential to stir this generation and the next to put down their smartphones (unless they’re using them to read Doyle) and gape at every life with childlike wonder, to pause and see the more magnificent thing, the more tremendous gift toward which each tiny miracle points.

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