I’ve long admired Brian Doyle’s essays: succinct, precise, unexpected, and gorgeous. They’re chockfull of playful language, unabashed spirituality, and plain elation. It’s not as though Doyle’s unwilling to confront harsh realities. His very short essay “Leap” is the most moving response to 9/11 I’ve ever read. But more often he confronts us with joy. The last sentence of “Joyas Voladoras,” which moves from a hummingbird’s heart to a blue whale’s to a human’s, makes me weep every single time I read it:
“You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman's second glance, a child's apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother's papery ancient hand in a thicket of your hair, the memory of your father's voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.”
Still Brian Doyle’s essays did not prepare me for Mink River, his first novel. I mean, I thought I’d like it, but I didn’t think I’d like it so much that as soon as I stopped reading I’d start all over again. But that’s exactly what happened. Part of the attraction is geographic. Mink River takes place in the fictional Northwest coast town of Neawanaka and the descriptions of the rain and forest rival those in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. But Doyle’s novel is bigger-hearted than Kesey’s. The prose sings with echoes of Blake and Joyce, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Louise Erdrich. The story itself shimmers. Mink River isn’t just about one stubborn family; it’s about one generous, pained, magic community.
And there’s the rub. I’ve been writing essays about community for ten years at least. (The collection Potluck: Community at the Edge of Wilderness comes out in spring) I’ve tried to capture the complicated nuances, loyalties, surprises, and sorrows. Hopefully, I’ve done it in my own little way. Doyle does it in a big way. Between braided storylines, short sections from a omniscient narrator describe what every character is doing at one moment, and the parallels between them captures connectedness, over and over, better than I ever could.
I adore these sections. I adore the characters: Worried Man and Cedar who collect stories for the Department of Public Works, the strong women – Nora the wood carver, Grace the fisherman turned barkeep, Stella the barkeep turned farmer. I love Moses the talking crow, Daniel the bicycling boy, Owen the Irishman, Michael the cop, the doctor who smokes 13 cigarettes a day, one for each apostle including Matthias, and young Nicholas who moves away to attend college at Oregon State. Which brings me to my only criticism of the book: Nicholas should’ve been a Duck. Really, it’s a terrific book. Better than terrific. Read it.