Why isn’t Brian Doyle famous? After all, these are boom times for essayists, relatively speaking. Nonfiction abounds on publishers’ lists, everything from traditional memoirs to lyric essay collections to ruminations on place to chronicles of living for a year on home-raised mushrooms or with a biblical beard. And creative nonfiction features in almost every literary journal now, expanding the categories beyond fiction and poetry and the occasional act of literary critcism. This American Life all by itself seems to have created a niche—and a subsequent college lecture circuit―for richly written, ear-to-the-ground personal essays that move, much in the way that Doyle’s work typically does, between the mundane and the revelatory. Each week on the radio, we can hear essays that are brief but not glib, essays that evince hope for the general human condition even while acknowledging the dark spaces in which we often find ourselves.
But Brian Doyle remains stubbornly a writer’s writer, unknown to the best-seller or even the good-seller lists, a Townes Van Zandt of essayists, known by those in the know. For those of us in the know, the appearance of a new Brian Doyle essay is a mini-event, the first name you turn to in the table of contents, the first click on a literary web site. Maybe that’s enough.
Still, more people should read Brian Doyle. More people should get to know the world he inhabits—if only because, based on his essays, I feel sure he would use the slight bump in royalty payments to buy his children something fun but age-appropriate or take his wife to a lovely dinner, while still keeping an eye on the price of the wine. Nothing too showy or sensational. It’s Doyle’s particular gift as a writer to make these kinds of everyday events feel wonderful, and to acknowledge the way that spirit and science combine miraculously to make any element of our lives possible.
Take The Wet Engine. It would be easy for a writer to emphasize the sensational element at the core of the book. It’s built, in fact, on a sensational series of events: Doyle’s newborn son, Liam, nearly died from a congenital heart condition and was saved by doctors through multiple operations over the course of multiple years. But Doyle sidesteps the sensationalized version of this story by letting us know, right away, that his son is fine now. In ten or twenty years, he may not be, because his heart has an early expiration date. But for now he’s fine, a good egg in the way that most kids are, a pain in the ass they way that most kids are. The sensational isn’t really Doyle’s style. His method is to take a fact, or a moment, and examine it closely, using his remarkable ability to turn a phrase until that fact, or moment, feels so much larger than you might have thought:
Let us contemplate, you and I, the bloody electric muscle. Let us consider it from every angle. Let us remove it from its bony cage, its gristly case, and turn it glinting this way and that, and look at it as if we have never seen it before, because we never have seen it before, not like this.
If you like Brian Doyle’s work, this series of sentences tells you why. It’s focused, beautiful, and relentless—a kind of artistic version of the scientific method.
As Doyle explores his son’s story, and those connected to it—the doctors who saved Liam, the science that made it possible, and the effects on all the people around him—it spirals in and out and touches down in some surprising places. (Perhaps the circulation of blood away from and back to the heart, again and again, would be a better metaphor.) It lands for a brief time on the story of a Japanese-American young woman held in awful conditions, with thousands of others like her, in an internment camp during World War II. Her name is Hope—only in a Doyle essay could this fact feel inevitable rather than invented—and she turns out to be the mother of the doctor who saved Liam’s life, a fact that makes you want to reach back in history and shake someone really hard. “I ask her if she is bitter about being imprisoned by her own government for having parents from another country,” Doyle writes. “No, I am not bitter,” she says. “Bitter is no place to be. But I do not forget.”
If The Wet Engine has a minor weakness, it’s that the moments of compression outweigh these moments of expansion; it’s a short book, and it can feel a little claustrophobic in its intensity. But that’s a small quibble, well worth the trade-off. Oregon State University Press deserves praise for bringing back this book after its original publisher let it lapse. More people should read Brian Doyle, and this gives them a chance. Doyle may never be famous, but for now, at least, I suspect he’s content with the writer’s miracle: in print.
Kevin Haworth's most recent book is Famous Drownings in Literary History: Essays on 21st Century Jewishness. He teaches at Ohio University and at Tel Aviv University.
The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of the Heart
Oregon State University Press, May 2012
$17.95 paperback, ISBN: 9780870716539