October 2014

Walter Biggins

nonfiction

Children and Other Wild Animals by Brian Doyle

With new essays, it's hard to hear that sweet sound of surprise these days, to be gobsmacked by a writer you've never heard of before, in a magazine in which we don't expect it. Twitter, Facebook, the Huffington Post, and Buzzfeed all prep us for what we're about to read. The chatter about the writing works parallel to the writing itself, so much so that many of us have (often extreme) positions on a new essay before we've, you know, actually got around to reading it. An essay's comments section often has three times the word count of the original piece, and that's even counting all of the aggrieved blog posts and tweets surrounding it.

While reading Brian Doyle's new essay collection, Children and Other Wild Animals, in fact, I was reminded that the last time I'd been totally smacked into bewilderment and a flushed face -- well, as flushed as a black man's face gets -- by an essayist was by, well, Brian Doyle. Ten, maybe twelve years ago, I had run across his short piece, "Joyas Volardores," in a then-new issue of The American Scholar. Why would I expect anything to make me see the world anew from a middle-class white guy writing about hummingbirds?

Those four pages, though, wrecked me. Here's how it starts:

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird's heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird's heart is the size of a pencil point. A hummingbird's heart is most of the hummingbird.

So far, so standard. But "Joyas volardores," Doyle tells us, means "flying jewels," which is what the first white settlers in the Americas called these tiny, multi-hued, ever-flitting-about gems of the sky. They'd never been seen by Europeans before, who didn't know what to make of them. The essay -- short, colorful, loopy -- acts like a hummingbird, veering from the observation of the feathered friends to the quandaries of the mammalian heart, from biology to emotion to something like philosophy, all in a short wingspan. Here's how it ends, going from hummingbird heart to human heart so fluidly that I didn't notice the trick at first:

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end -- not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up the heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down in 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 the 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.

Needless to say, I was pleased to see "Joyas Volardores" reprinted in this collection, and doubly pleased to find that it holds up, a decade later. The piece glows.

Other pieces glow like hummingbirds in sunlight, radiating warmth and insight from the inside out. Others merely glitter with a surface-level sparkle. There's a difference, and that difference highlights a flaw in this worthwhile, sometimes magical book.

The flaw stems from a strength -- this is often the case in life. Most of the essays in Children and Other Wild Animals are less than five pages long. This gives Doyle the opportunity to create vivid snapshots of an animal in flight, a child at play, a wilderness in motion or in stillness. He makes the most of his brevity, conveying the sights, sounds, and smells of his beloved Pacific Northwest -- he lives in Portland, Oregon -- with vibrant language that matches what he's describing. I used the term "magical" in the last paragraph, and I meant it. Doyle's prose casts spells.

Unfortunately, Doyle is Irish Catholic in the most lachrymose way. There's nothing inherently wrong with Catholicism -- or, at least, nothing that's more wrong with it than any number of religions. But Doyle's sense of Godliness means that he wants dearly for his magic to have meaning. He rarely allows it to have beauty and grace for its own sake but instead he tries to give it into God's capital "G" Grace. Because the essays are so brief, Doyle finds himself rushing into epiphanies, grand gestures of closure, and Major Insights before he's even finished giving us a full sense of his subject. He's wrestling with big themes -- marriage, parenthood, regret, ecological conservation, death, desire -- and those issues can't be wrapped up into neat bows or pat jokes. Doyle tries to do so frequently in Children and Other Wild Animals, undercutting his strong storytelling up to that point.

For this reason, the two longer essays here -- "What the Air Carries" and "The Creature Beyond the Mountains" -- work better, rewarding Doyle's attempts to grasp a larger grace. You wouldn't think so from the subjects. "What the Air Carries" is about exactly that -- air, wind, and everything they hold aloft in this world. "The Creature Beyond the Mountains" concerns the sturgeon, and Doyle's self-aware enough to show his wife grabbing him by the beard and asking, "What is up with you and sturgeon, why are you so fascinated with sturgeon?" And then he shows us, and we become fascinated, too.

The future of sturgeon -- over-fished and undernourished -- is uncertain, and Doyle lets that uncertainty ride. In his uneasiest essays here, about death ("That Chickadee Must Be from Chicago"), ecological devastation and recovery ("What Does the Earth Ask of Us"), a virulently racist relative ("Sandy"), Doyle allows himself ambiguity. He doesn't overreach. He doesn't attempt to soothe us. He struggles to find the right language, and shows us the failure to do so. He lets the bleakness mix with radiance without forcing a point. It probably says more about me than Doyle that I prefer these pieces to the ones with pat, cutesy conclusions. His recent micro-essays for The Sun -- which I hope get collected soon -- have engaged with darker material, from the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre to ugly sibling rivalry that turns violent, from his short temper and inability to control it to fears for his teenage children. So perhaps Children and Other Wild Animals, which collects materials from the past fifteen years or so, is a lead-in to work that will be even richer and less comforting.

Even if his themes are occasionally too trite, Doyle's prose style can certainly be restless. His sense of dialogue is so fluid, so nimble in capturing the voices of others, that some of the essays ("That Chickadee Must Be from Chicago," "Cyrus," "The Hawk") move from his voice to that of the person he's "transcribing" without pause. He eschews quotation marks, italics, or other signs that distinguish dialogue from prose; in this interview, Doyle explains why:

I really feel that they are mannerisms, generally, and if I write clearly enough I can avoid them. Also I love the way the lack of quotes allows me to slide between and among voices spoken and heard, written and spoken, spoken and thought silently, spoken and thought by all sorts of beings. I dislike any filters between me and the reader and try to destroy them cheerfully where possible, as long as I stay clear in communication, and avoid self-indulgent self-absorbed writing. I suspect that's partly why I like laughing in my prose if we grin together, another filter fell down and died.

That intended lack of affect means that he's willing to try formal experiments in Children and Other Wild Animals, just to see if they work. There are the aforementioned dramatic monologues. "Things My Kids Have Said That They Do Not Know I Know They Said" is a barrage of brief, loopy aphorisms that somehow add up to a ringing familial love. "The Greatest Nature Essay Ever" is pretty good as that but better as a sly critique of nature essays. "Twenty Things the Dog Ate" is just that but funnier than you can imagine.

So, despite its problems, I hope new Doyle readers stumble onto Children and Other Wild Animals, for its main problem may be its format. If I had found most of the material bit by bit, instead of in concentrated form, I doubt I would have minded the bravura swings quite so much. Perhaps the best way to approach these searches for grace in a haunted world is to read one or two a day, like a devotional, rather than plow through the collection all at once. It's better to seek Doyle out or to suddenly, unexpectedly come across him while hiking or obsessing over something else entirely. These essays come at you sideways; approach this book in the same way, and you'll be rewarded.

Children and Other Wild Animals by Brian Doyle
Oregon State University Press
ISBN: 978-0870717543
176 pages