I’m not a devotee of essays and I’d never heard of Brian Doyle. But when my almost-cousin Genie said I must read Doyles’ new book of said essays, I knew she could be trusted. And, boy, could she!
A distinguished novelist honored by the American Academy of Arts and a respected journalist with bylines in The Atlanticand American Scholar, among others, Doyle died in 2017 at age 60. Despite being considered a writer’s writer, Doyle’s breezy style makes his short essays deceptively fast reads. “Pithy,” as in brief but substantive, is a concise adjective to describe the essays in his book One Long River of Song.
Heart caring is another way to talk about them. He wrote “Nurses” long before the rest of us needed Covid to ‘woke’ us about how important they are. Like a Biblical prophet, Doyle writes what the rest of us didn’t really understand about nurses until the 2020 pandemic struck. “…nurses are essentially angelic and gentle and witty and brilliant and holy beings who bring light and peace, even though I know they must have dark nights when they are weary and sad and thrashed by despair like a beach by a tide.”
What better simile for the nurses we’ve watched on TV encased in their protective gowns wearing masks under plastic shields as they collapse, weeping into their hands! Indeed, they are the image of “a beach thrashed by a tide.”
As the mother of a gay daughter, I wish I could get our country’s judgmental sexists to read Doyle’s “Mea Culpa.” How many of us grew up in the world when homosexuals were dismissed as “queers.” Doyle writes about snickering at their “crew cuts and sashay…feathers and glitter,” their gay-pride parades.
Then he saw the million-square-feet AIDS Memorial quilt, each patch naming a young person who’d died of the disease. He writes simply, “I started listening.” And he speaks to what the Supreme Court justices understood before many Americans did. “If someone loves someone else, what do I care what gender or orientation or identity they choose?”
As once a mocker of “queers” and now the parent of a gay child, I was not only deeply touched by Brian Doyle’s closing, but I knew I could have written it myself: “I have done many foolish things in this life, so far,” Doyle writes. He then goes on to call his past mockery of homosexuality “one of the most foolish, and cruel, and sinful. Mea Culpa. Mea maxima culpa.”
No, I’m still not a fan of essays—unless Brian Doyle wrote them.