Issue Date: June 3, 2005
Sniffing out the heart of the story
By KRIS BERGGREN
Brian Doyle calls himself a story-smeller.
God gave me one gift, to smell and take delight in stories, said Mr. Doyle, whose newest book, The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad, Wild Miracle of the Heart, was released by Paraclete Press in May. The book is a collection of anecdotes that grew from the authors experience with the life-threatening heart condition of his son, Liam.
Dont mistake The Wet Engine for a simple feel-good tale of a little boys triumph over death. Liams story is the vehicle for Mr. Doyles meditation on the nature of love, suffering, commitment and grace told in word-riffs on topics circling around the theme of heart, the biological organ, and heart, the metaphysical site of deepest feeling. Mr. Doyle says the book is a prayer of gratitude for Liams doctor, pediatric cardiologist Dave McIrvin.
That the book evolved in ways Mr. Doyle hadnt anticipated doesnt surprise him.
In the writing of the book, and as an essayist, Ive learned that what I think Im writing about is generally not what Im writing about. You should let them [stories] go in their direction and follow interestedly. It should almost be like two people sitting over a pint of ale, Mr. Doyle said in a telephone interview from his office in Portland, Ore., where he edits the award-winning Portland Magazine, published by the University of Portland.
Even before Liam was born, Mr. Doyle and his wife, Mary, knew about their sons problem heart. (Liam and his twin, Joseph, who was born with a healthy heart, are now 10. The boys have a 13-year-old sister, Lily.) Mr. Doyle researched the heart and quizzed doctors about his sons condition and the protocol for treatment: two extremely risky surgeries in the boys infancy and the prospect of awaiting a transplant one day. I wanted to eat all the details, Mr. Doyle said. I thought, someday I should write all of this down.
When Paraclete called Mr. Doyle to say theyd admired his work and did he have anything hed like to publish, The Wet Engine came to be.
I was a difficult partner sometimes, Mr. Doyle admits of his relationship with the publisher. I insisted on the title. Their marketing people said, What is this about? A carburetor? Thankfully, he adds, the books subtitle distinguishes it from an engine repair manual.
Mr. Doyles storytelling ability was nurtured by his New York Irish Catholic roots. His father is journalist James A. Doyle, who ran the Catholic Press Association for 30 years until 1988. The elder Doyles blunt dicta taught the son that being a writer means sitting down in the chair and writing, not talking about writing. Get a job, said his father. Learn to type.
Mr. Doyle took his fathers advice. He writes almost every day. Since his graduation from the University of Notre Dame in 1978, he has written six books, including Spirited Men, essays about literary and musical storytellers such as William Blake, Robert Louis Stevenson and Van Morrison; and Saints Passionate and Peculiar, a collection of brief excitable headlong essays for teenagers about saints. Spiritual themes and a Catholic flavor permeate his work.
It continues to fascinate me -- the insane genius of the Catholic idea, Mr. Doyle said.
As a Catholic, Mr. Doyle says he is fascinated, confused, delighted, angry, riveted. To me [doubt] is the sign of a living faith. One of things I love about Catholicism is that there is not just one kind, said Mr. Doyle.
While Mr. Doyle describes his new book as deeply spiritual but not religious, The Wet Engine witnesses an intensely incarnational -- and undeniably Catholic -- literary flavor and bears several hallmarks of Catholic literature.
First, despite the books emotionally weighty subject, it is completely unsentimental. One of the funny remarks I got was this book handles a lot of macabre information with a certain glee, Mr. Doyle said. True enough, Mr. Doyle offers tangible details of scientific experiments and heart surgeries, not to mention the naked emotional material of parents scared out of their wits at the prospect of losing a child.
Second, its universal truths are firmly rooted in the particular. I really wanted to get at the true bone of this story in a way that really wasnt ultimately about me and my son, Mr. Doyle said. This doctor really impressed me, the enormous grace of his life. There is a priestly aspect to him.
For example, in an early chapter he describes how Dr. Dave, as a pediatrics resident, shepherded a group of sick kids to the circus including a child who, off her ventilator, needed to have someone manually squeeze her ambu bag to help her breathe. The whole time. And another with a fistula who ate ice cream that came out the side of his throat: He was in absolute ecstasy, Mr. Doyle writes of the child.
Finally, his work confronts the presence of grace in such vulnerable moments. One realization Ive had, said the 48-year-old author, is joy isnt even a cousin to sadness. They are lovers, joy and despair. They are twinned.
Mr. Doyles perspective on storytelling has evolved during his 27-year career.
I used to be a literary snob, to think stories had measurements of quality. Now I dont, Mr. Doyle said. I think there is either substance or illusion. I think stories are true whether they are fiction or not. A true story has a bone echo. They are about how people are and how they want to be.
Kris Berggren lives and writes in Minneapolis.
National Catholic Reporter, June 3, 2005
|Copyright © The
National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd.,
Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.
TEL: 816-531-0538 FAX: 1-816-968-2280 Send comments about this Web site to: email@example.com