“Many of my friends are people I’ve never met; I counted Brian Doyle in that group.”
The above quote – from a piece by the editor of the Georgia Review – the University of Georgia’s journal of arts and letters, was one of hundreds of laudatory comments from all over the world paying tribute to this literary icon and remarkable human being. The breadth of Brian Doyle’s literary talent and speaking ability are evident based on the diversity of the novels, essays, short stories and presentations cited in these accolades..
And those reading his work could not avoid feeling the personal bond referenced by the literary expert above. Just by reading several chaoters in Mink River, The Plover or Marten Martin, the reader quickly discovers Brian’s love of nature, his imagination and his fascination with the mundane details in life most of us take for granted. He spoke to his readers in the true sense of the word.
I was profoundly saddened by the passing of this author, award-winning magazine editor, family man and unforgettable personality, on May 27th. Brian was diagnosed with brain cancer last November and his solid faith sustained him through the surgery and post-operative time with his wonderful family.
He had an expansive group of friends who marveled at his creativity, wit, compassion and charisma. As Father Mark Porman, the President of University of Portland, where Brian worked for twenty-six years, stated:
“He was a man filled with a sense of humanity and wonder, who was interested in everyone’s story and who saw everyone’s potential. His warmth, humor, and passion of life will be deeply missed and his loss will be acutely felt here and beyond.”
I only knew Brian for three and one-half years and we first met after I wrote him a letter about the Brian Doyle Humor Scholarship awarded annually at UP. I thought it was creative, inspirational and a credit to both him and his university.
Having recently started this blog, I told Brian that I wanted to “honor” him by naming him my next Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter – an accolade he could put on his resume right below Notary Public. All it required, was to meet me for a beer and an interview.
To my surprise, he agreed and our meeting at Fulton’s Pub on Macadam – one of his favorites – was the first of a number of mug-raising sessions, although he usually drank white wine (and an occasional Hammerhead Ale on very hot days). I inevitably left those sessions feeling better about the human condition. My wife, Janet and I had the pleasure of meeting his wife, Mary, at one of those get-togethers at Maher’s Pub in Lake Oswego.
The chorus of those paying tribute to Brian Doyle is loud and prolonged and the inventory of his attributes cited reads like one of Brian’s lists in Martin Marten. I enjoyed all of his novels – I’m half way through Chicago now and the manner in which his characters convey the essence of that great city make it my favorite so far. (I have to admit that I even kept notes while reading each of his previous books so I could remember some of the many memorable phrases or metaphors.)
I could also talk about his love of nature; his poignant essays (e.g. his 2009 work, “The Terrible Brilliance,” based on the art therapy work Mary does for young children with serious illnesses at Doernbecher) or the quality of his conversations ranging from the ocean or the village of Zig Zag, to basketball, faith, Edmund Burke and younger days – we found out that we were both born in Merrick, Long Island, New York.
But I want to focus this narrative and my best memories of Brian, on his imaginative, idiosyncratic, dry and incomparable humor. The following are examples of why I will always smile when I think of the bearded Notre Dame graduate.
“On Being Brian”
In 2002, he wrote letters to 215 other Brian Doyles he found in a national directory to learn more about them:
“Tell me a little bit about yourself, I wrote us recently. How did you get your name? What do you do for work? What are your favorite pursuits? Hobbies? Avocations? Have any of us named our sons Brian? What Irish county were your forebears from? Where were you born? Where did you go to college? What’s your wife’s name?
He spoke to or corresponded with 111 and his essay, “Being Brian,” was published in Harper’s Magazine. “Oddly, we were all neurotic about getting to airports early (at least two hours) and all had terrible handwriting.” (I have a feeling Brian would have undertaken this endeavor even if his name had been Jim Johnson or maybe even Alexi Fronkiwiecz……..)
He said that he was often mistaken for the Brian Doyle, who is well-regarded Canadian children’s author and I kidded him because in doing the research for my blog, I noticed that Portland’s Brian Doyle’s bearded countenance is shown in the summary caption of the Wikipedia article on the Canadian Brian Doyle! Check it out – that’s still the case. https://www.bing.com/search?q=brian%20doyle%20author&qs=n&form=QBRE&sp
Since we were both New Yorkers, I loved his essay about an altercation in which he and his five brothers “engaged” a male patron in a one of the city’s pubs. This piece demonstrates Brian’s love of the language and his imagination (he maintained this spat really happened, but some of the details could be storyteller’s license).
“Finally there was a moment when the young man leaned toward the young woman and gently covered her exquisite digits with his offensive paws and said:
‘Hopefully, you and I… ‘ at which point my brother Thomas stood up suddenly, launched himself over the balcony rail, landed with a stupendous crash on their table, and said to the young man, ‘Never, and I mean never, begin a sentence with an adverb.”‘
Brian spoke at a dinner of the Lang Syne Association in Portland in 2015. And as one Goodreads reviewer wrote in 2010, “He’s an insanely intense and achingly vulnerable speaker who laughs and cries at his own stories.”
His short and well-received address that night focused on his five favorite Oregon writers with this eloquent preamble:
“……we rarely celebrate stories enough in public, but I will do so here, because after thirty years of writing I am convinced that stories are food, holy, nutritious, crucial, the muscle of citizenship, maybe even the subtle ways by which we can imagine and achieve a world where war is a memory and violence is a joke in poor taste and children are not afraid and humor and creativity are the common coins of our civic lives.”
He then provided one of his characteristic lists on these literary all-stars and a few other authors enumerating what they (and he) appreciated about Oregon. Halfway through the list was this item:
“A thorough patience and even appreciation for rain and mist and mud.” (emphasis supplied)
The next time we had a beer (which was on a stormy, yucky day), I chided him about paying tribute to our never-ending precipitation. I subsequently got a very short e-mail with only the words “Heh, Heh…”, and the above referenced essay attached – one that had been published in The American Scholar and included this excerpt:
“It has been raining so hard and thoroughly that the moss has moss on it. It has rained since last year, which is a remarkable sentence. Even the rain has had enough of the rain and it appears to be pale and weary when it shuffles to the lobby to punch in and out every day…….
Slugs have congregated in the basement and established a new religion complete with tithing expectations and plans for expansion into Latin American markets. Mold is now listed in the stock exchange.”
I’ll conclude with the example below which was published in the Kenyon Review in the summer of 2012. Brian loved basketball and this passion was reflected in his writing – just read the first few chapters of Chicago and you’ll get a flavor:
Page 20: “I found a pitted basketball court three blocks north, in a school playground which turned out to be exactly on the borderline between the territories of the Latin Kings and the Latin Eagles……I tried to play there every afternoon, if I could before the sun went down…..I got in hundreds of games with the Kings and the Eagles, many of whom fancied themselves terrific ballplayers, and some of whom were.”
In his imitable style, he describes players named Monster, Bucket, Nemo and Not My Fault who:
“….despite being short and round, dearly loved to fly down the middle of the court with the ball, try a wild ridiculous shot in dense traffic, fail to make the slightest effort to claim the inevitable rebound, and then either claim he was making a visionary creative pass, or denigrate a teammate for note being in position to receive the supposed miracle pass.”
“…. (it) was so tough that when guys drove to the hole, they lost fingers. One time a guy….got hit so hard his right arm fell off, but he was a lefty and hit both free throws before going to the bench….
I heard that his team later had a funeral for the arm with everyone carrying the casket with only one arm as a gaffe, but they all got so howling drunk that they lost the arm and had to bury the casket empty and then they spent the rest of the night trying to remember every lefty guy in the history of sports……”
At one of our last Beerchasing expeditions, Brian and his University of Portland colleague, Dr. Sam Holloway and I met near their digs in the historic St. John’s Pub – one of the McMenamin’s establishments. I arrived early and began downing a pint of their good Ruby Red Ale. When the other two arrived, I was not surprised that Brian ordered his typical pino gris, but Sam, who is a well-known consultant on the business of micro-breweries and head of UP’s Master Strategist:- Craft Beer Business program, also ordered wine – a temporary gluten issue…
We then had a deep discussion about the merits of each beverage which ended with me quoting one sage who asserted:
“Beer – because one doesn’t solve the world’s problems over white wine…..”
Brian is no longer with us, but his legacy will long prevail. And I can just imagine one of Brian’s first orders of business in the heavenly realm:
After retrieving two spare halos, he converts them into basketball hoops upon convincing God to let him be the player-coach of a team – we’ll call them the Divine Disciples who will ultimately play for the league championship.
In the huddle Brian uses his knowledge of scripture and cites Mathew 20:16 (English Revised Version preferred) “So the last shall be first, and the first last,” to describe a weak-side pick and roll play which will take advantage of the opposing team’s lackluster defense. (The guy who lost his arm in the Boston game has a new and perfected body as promised in the New Testament and scores the winning layup with his restored limb and “Not My Fault” even admits culpability for several critical turnovers.)
I’m confident that Brian would never subscribe to the premise that “everyone gets a trophy” – even in heaven, and he and his team will toast their victory and raise both the championship trophy and mugs/glass in an ethereal pub.
We will miss you, Brian, and thanks for enriching our lives.
Original Beerchaser-of-the-Quarter post from February 2014