One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder

Brian Doyle

Little, Brown & Co

I am standing in the hospital watching babies emerge from my wife like a circus act. First out is a boy, dark-haired and calm, the size of an owl. He is immediately commandeered by a nurse who whisks him off for a bath and a stint in what appears to be a tiny tanning bed. Now, says the doctor, reaching around inside my wife while he talks, here’s the other one, and he hauls out another boy. This one is light-haired and not calm; he grabs for a nurse’s scissors and won’t let go and they have to pry his fingers off and the nurse looks accusingly at me for some reason and I want to say hey, I don’t even know the guy, but I don’t say anything, being overwhelmed with new roommates and tears and astonishment at people emerging from my wife one after another…

              from One Long River of Song



Playing with words and wonder

There are times in life when just the right book comes at just the right moment. After recently reading about A Very Stable Genius and then the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake (aka The Big One), this collection of essays by the late and much loved Oregon writer Brian Doyle was a refreshing re-centering breath of fresh air, humanity and sanity.

Doyle, who died of a brain tumor in 2017 at the age of sixty, was editor of Portland Magazine for twenty-five years and the author of numerous fiction and nonfiction works. Like Walt Whitman, William Blake, and countless other poets and mystics before him, he found wonder and delight in the everything of everyday, bearing witness to life's “incomprehensible, inexhaustible, inexplicable yes.”

Readers who loved his novels Mink River and Martin Marten will find in this collection the same quirky, joyous madcap rush of words at play, unhindered by such niceties as punctuation and paragraphs. He used words and wonder as playthings, toys for his imagination, often pushing words to their limit, like a kid in an old hot rod wanting to see what it can do.

Indeed, he seemed to think proper punctuation was for wimps. He would run with a sentence, seeing how long he could keep it in the air, suspended on looping strings of adjectives as if they were on special that day, two for the price of one, until, finally stretching the sentence to its utmost limit, he’d grudgingly slap a period on the end of it, as if disappointed he couldn’t keep it aloft for a couple of more lines. After reading one such 379-word sentence, I realized that I’ve read shorter chapters.

One imagines Doyle not writing words so much as dancing with them, sometimes he leading, sometimes the words, in a continuous dizzying delightful whirl of wonder.

 “I sing a song of things that make us grin and bow,” he announces, filling these essays with musings and memories of the gloriously mundane:

Of his journalist father’s old manual typewriter, hearing the shift and drift of the thrum of the thing.

Of being a teenage counselor at a summer camp ministering to a mob of boys, age four to six, who ran like deer, cried like infants, fought like cats, and cursed like stevedores.

Or playing chess with his son: My queen roared off her throne snarling and forced her way all the way to his back line but he deftly boxed her in with yapping pawns…I sent my bishops slicing here and there…

Or sharing letters from readers: ‘Our book club read this book and we got into such an argument about it being inane or brilliant that the book club was dissolved and now I have to find a new book club, for which I blame the author.’

Or listening to the simple grace pronounced by a friend before their shared meal: He bowed his head, in the guttering candlelight, steam rising from the food before him, the fingers of the cedar outside brushing the window, and said, ‘We are part of a Mystery we do not understand, and we are grateful.’

Living amid this current hyper-partisanship, facing present and potential disasters, you too might take a break and walk with this humble, humorous man, looking through his eyes (through his words) to see how extraordinary and wondrous the ordinary is.

Finishing the last essay, I closed the book with a sigh--once again, just the right book had come to me at just the right moment--and murmured, Thanks. I needed that.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15-April 15, 2020.) Reprinted with permission.