Whenever I see a reference comparing a book to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio I am moved to wonder whether today’s (literate) reader is familiar with Anderson’s best known work and more importantly whether the comparison is apt. Greg Sarris, who championed Brian Doyle’s new novel Mink River(Oregon State University Press) (to which I owe him and SF Chronicle book editor John McMurtrie much gratitude for making me aware of this wonderful narrative), speaks to that issue:
Yes, “Mink River” concerns itself with the daily life of a small town, and there the comparison stops. If birds are similar, this novel is as different from its two forebears as a hummingbird is from an ostrich.
For the Chinese, 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit but I am beginning to consider calling it the Year of the Author. Brian Doyle, who has authored ten books, edits Portland (Oregon)Magazine and has been published by The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Orion, The American Scholar, and anthologized in Best American Essays, Best American Science & Nature Writing, and Best American Spiritual Writing. Which is to make the obvious point that he is no neophyte writer just hatched by a MFA program and gobbled up by the Eastern literary establishment. And while it seems that my colleagues in the literary journalism game may be removing the scales from their eyes, discovering writers in not the usual places, Brian Doyle’s Mink River demands that attention be paid.
Everything else aside in my reading of Mink River I was immediately impressed with Doyle’s prose—his sentences wend a wonderously circuitious path, frequently ending up in a different place or sense than I expected, all the while making sense. That is no mean feat. 12 year old Daniel, who has bad accident which is the centerpiece of this story:
“Daniel on his bike thinks of his family. He rushes downhill through the onrushing night. We’re so weird. My dad is Irish and my mom is one of the People, which makes me an Irish-People-American. My dad works with a talking crow. My mom says that she finds out what wood and stone want to be when they grow up.”
I was amused to read an elegaic blurb by David James Duncan for Doyle’s book that was almost operatic in valences:
If my high-hearted friend Brian Doyle is trying to avoid the nickname ‘Paddy,’ his wondrous Oregon Coast novel is the wrong feckin’ way to go about it. In its sights, settings, insinuations, flora and fauna, his tale is quintessential North Coast, but in its sensibility and lilt this story is as Irish as tin whistles—and the pairing is an unprecedented delight. This thing reads like an Uilleann pipe tour de force by a Sligo County maestro cast up on the shores of County Tillamook. The hauntings and shadows, shards of dark and bright, usurpations by wonder, lust, blarney, yearning, are coast-mythic in flavor but entirely bardic at heart. Doyle’s sleights of hand, word, and reality burr up off the page the way bits of heather burr out of a handmade Irish sweater yet the same sweater is stained indigenous orange by a thousand Netarts Bay salmonberries. I’ve read no Northwest novel remotely like it and enjoyed few novels more. Of an Irishman’s Oregon I am nothing but glad to have wandered, Mink River sings and sings.”
Now that’s a blurb. And not to belabor the point, this is some book.