Many of my friends are people I’ve never met; I counted Brian Doyle in that group.
We were in the same room at the Yale Club of New York City on April 3, 2017—but I was sitting in a chair and Brian was on a large video screen, speaking from his home in Portland, Oregon, to an audience gathered for the 92nd John Burroughs Association Literary Awards Celebration. Brian’s novel Martin Marten had won the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Natural History, and in so doing that book became the first work of fiction ever to earn that honor.
I do not know exactly when Brian’s warm and eloquent acceptance remarks were recorded, but it could not have been very long prior to the celebration day. I knew he was dealing with an aggressive cancer and would not be present, so I was surprised by how un-ill he appeared to be during those ten or so minutes he was onscreen.
Now, in the wake of Brian’s death, I realize I should not have been surprised. However good or bad the day was for him when he spoke to those of us gathered at the Yale Club, Brian was being his selfless self—the modest and sympathetic man he revealed to me in his two works that appeared in the pages of The Georgia Review:
Our Summer 2002 issue included “Yes,” a simultaneously dense and lighthearted four-page meditation on the vagaries of his grandmother’s native tongue (“there is no way to say the words yes and no in Gaelic”) and of family life (“I am terrified of the fates that may befall my children—fates over which I have no power at all, not the slightest, other than keeping my little children close to me in the presence of cars and dogs and such”).
Twelve years later, in Summer 2014, Brian enriched GR with the expansive (nearly thirty pages) “Sam & Louis,” a tour de force educated imagining of the meeting—it took place, but was in no way recorded—of Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson in New York City’s Washington Square Park. Brian’s brilliant confabulation was born from a marvelous mixture of his lifelong love for both writers with the man and writer he himself had grown to be. As Brian said in a moving “Sam & Louis” backstory he wrote then for our website (and now re-featured here along with the vivid main piece itself), “I loved their writings and admired their characters, and was soaked in their rhythms and cadences and interests and themes after fifty years of hearing and reading them. . . .”
Whatever Brian and I came to know of each other we came to during our editor/author author/editor exchanges about refining “Sam & Louis” for publication, and I believe the fact that both of us had worked both sides of the transom was what allowed us to mesh much more often than clash. I had been looking forward to working with him again sometime, and maybe even to being literally in the same room with him. Those hopes have now slipped away, at least from one realm, but I can still hold to and appreciate the man who closed his essay “Yes” with these wrenching but comforting words about his children and wife: “I say yes to them, yes, yes, yes, and to exhaustion I say yes, and to the puzzling wonder of my wife’s love I say O yes, and to horror and fear and jangled joys I say yes, to rich cheerful chaos that leads me sooner to the grave and happier along that muddy grave road I say yes, to my absolute surprise and with unbidden tears I say yes yes O yes.”