Feeling sick of winter and sick of being sick, and heartsick too? Then please, listen to JK Simmons read (and ohhh, when his voice catches…) “Illuminos” — a glittering gem of an essay from Brian Doyle’s most recent collection 8 Whopping Lies (and Other Stories of Bruised Grace). The guy has been on my mind a lot lately, as we approach the first anniversary of his passing, and as my partners and I continue to work on a big Best Of anthology of his best nonfiction. The tender sincerity of his writing feels downright defiant these days.
If you’re interested, you can read my review of collection for Orion below.
“THIS IS WHAT I KNOW: that the small is huge, that the tiny is vast, that pain is part and parcel of the gift of joy, and that there is love, and then there is everything else.”
During his nearly twenty-five years as a contributor, the late Brian Doyle published more pieces in Orion than any other author, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that many readers thought of him as a friend. Life for Brian, a self-described “grizzled student of wonder,” was a delicious, riveting, messy, tragic, hilarious, miraculous collection of moments—ones he couldn’t help but notice and share with others. He often wrote, with signature enthusiasm, about seemingly everyday things, like childhood, family life, sports, nature, and hidden grace. He also wrote powerfully, and humbly, about the deep spiritual thread of his own expansive faith. His most recent collection of essays, Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace, is no different. In it you’ll find reflections on writing, death, the daoine sídhe, conscientious objection, parenthood, and the hidden languages of bird watching and chess, among other small and huge, tiny and vast subjects.
A typical Doyle essay begins with a memory or observation of a fleeting moment—a hawk slicing through a flock of waxwings, the smell of a grandmother’s pillow, a pair of children holding hands—before it meanders along in rollicking sentences, eventually sneaking up to drop a bit of wriggling wisdom right in your lap. Such an essay might open with say, a conversation with an excited three-year-old about bears (which, as the child delightedly proclaims, have been around longer than words and “even pencils”). But it soon spirals toward a more piercing musing about how when we talk about the loss of wilderness and wildness, we never really talk about “the loss of the life we imagine, the life that speaks to us in deep voices in our dreams. When there are no bears in the world, then no children will dream of bears, and draw bears, and sleep with bears, and that will be a terrible shame.”
Another piece might find him examining a dead Townsend’s mole found in the yard. (“There’s not much in the way of arm-span. Mostly the arms are hands. The hands look eerily like baseball gloves.”) But when he picks up a guidebook and reads that this species is largely solitary in nature, the essay gently pivots, and suddenly he wants to “laugh and weep, as we are all largely solitary, and spend whole lifetimes digging tunnels toward each other, do we not?”
For Brian, love and humility, reverence and wonder, and the ache of longing to connect were so tangled up together they became all but synonymous. To give something your ferocious, awed attention—and intention—is to honor it. To then pass it along as a small, shimmering gem of a story (as Brian did literally thousands of times), was for him, a form of holy prayer. Of course, he was the first to admit it isn’t always easy to live in and practice that truth every hour of the day, but what a thing to strive for, what a pursuit, to bring “your naked love and defiant courage and salty grace to bear as much as you can, with all the attentiveness and humor you can muster.” And to do “your absolute best to find and hone and wield your divine gifts against the dark.”
Brian made it his purpose to recognize and record these small-not-small winks of beauty and grace. As a writer he used his gift to reach out to, connect, and elevate as many as he could. This book and his vast body of tender work are a testament to his great success.
—Reviewed by Kathleen Yale