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Issue Date:  June 3, 2005

Sniffing out the heart of the story


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 author’s experience with the life-threatening heart condition of his son, Liam.

Don’t mistake The Wet Engine for a simple feel-good tale of a little boy’s triumph over death. Liam’s story is the vehicle for Mr. Doyle’s 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 Liam’s doctor, pediatric cardiologist Dave McIrvin.

That the book evolved in ways Mr. Doyle hadn’t anticipated doesn’t surprise him.

“In the writing of the book, and as an essayist, I’ve learned that what I think I’m writing about is generally not what I’m 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 son’s 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 son’s condition and the protocol for treatment: two extremely risky surgeries in the boy’s 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 they’d admired his work and did he have anything he’d 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 book’s subtitle distinguishes it from an engine repair manual.

Mr. Doyle’s 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 Doyle’s “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 father’s 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 book’s 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 wasn’t 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 I’ve had,” said the 48-year-old author, “is joy isn’t even a cousin to sadness. They are lovers, joy and despair. They are twinned.”

Mr. Doyle’s 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 don’t,” 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.

By Brian Doyle
Paraclete Press, 170 pages, $17.95

Books examines how broken hearts are fixed


The heart of a hummingbird, the heart of a tortoise, the seven-ton heart of a blue whale and the human heart all have something in common -- approximately 2 billion beats to comprise a lifetime, writes Brian Doyle in his new book The Wet Engine.

This slim volume stems from Mr. Doyle’s experience with his son, Liam, now 10, born with a heart turned upside down and missing its right ventricle. Liam required two surgeries within his first two years of life. With a father’s “electric” love, a journalist’s research skills and, as he puts it, an essayist’s “headlong glee,” Mr. Doyle has assembled a panoply of stories about the heart as muscle and metaphor. What emerges is a simultaneously entertaining, informative and often breathtaking series of anecdotes on “heartchitecture,” as one chapter is titled -- how the heart works and what happens when it doesn’t. Mr. Doyle also tells of a few of the intrepid, talented, passionate and compassionate scientists and doctors who have studied and fixed broken hearts, from Claudius Galen to Denton Cooley to Dave McIrvin, the pediatric cardiologist who treats Liam.

It is no wonder that Mr. Doyle considers Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being a spiritual classic; his style is reminiscent of her way of describing mystical grace through the concrete funnel of nature and human nature. Here he describes the metaphysical heart’s vulnerability:

“You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it 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 ... the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.”

This summer if you’re looking for something to rekindle your spiritual passion, pick up this book and take it to heart.

National Catholic Reporter, June 3, 2005

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