They tell me Brian Doyle is a Catholic. And it seems he’s conned an awful lot of people, including the editorial staffs of Soujourners, Commonweal, and This Christian Century, three of the many places the proliic author has published. But I don’t buy it. At some point, he must have taken Jesus’ Sacred Heart down from his wall and replaced it with a copy of the Heart Sutra. In his latest book, The Thorny Grace of It And Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics, he has almost nothing to say about sex.
Instead, Doyle, who edits Portland Magazine, reflects in bite-sized, thousand-word chunks on the way God’s grace works around the house, around the parish, around the campus and the chancery. Early on, he states his mission and sells himself short by musing, “Our church is these sweet honest funny moments more than it is everything else…and how these sweet honest funny moments are so holy I cannot easily find words for them.” In fact, his vignettes do a great job of revealing divine power at its subtlest and most domestic. Picture a stack of old Polaroids that show the Holy Ghost guiding Sis’s hand as she bests Buddy at Connect Four, and you’ll get the idea.
Doyle captures the banter around a baptismal font, the drama in the life story of a hand-carved rosary, the piques and mercies of an enigmatic local baker. With stripped-down language, he forms sentences that creep hypnotically on, clause after clause, and create a mood almost Whitmaneseque with wonder. Here’s Doyle seeing his brother Kevin, a brilliant university professor made bald by chemotherapy and dying, for nearly the last time:
He grinned and didn’t say much, but I walked behind him smiling that so many knew him so well, knew him like I finally knew him, saw the wonder and laughter of his epic head. Walking behind him that day was like walking through the ruins of a castle that had once been frightening but was now just rubble from which something lovely had been freed.
Let’s nod to the elephant — coming from a lesser writer, a book so overflowing with positive energy might go down like a whole bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s. But Doyle knows what he’s doing. For all his lyricism, he has a journalist’s eye for detail and ear for dialogue, and these keep his scenes grounded in a world recognizable as real. In “His Last Game,” Doyle uses both to great advantage, sizing up he strengths and weaknesses of the players in a pickup basketball game and relating how an older player — “comfortable with his age” — ends up “snaking” a younger one for a final basket. “You remember that for me,” Doyle is told by his dying brother (and fellow spectator). I’ll remember it for both of them.
“His Last Game” has made it into this year’s Best American Essays anthology, and it belongs there. But in this reviewer’s judgment, Thorny Grace’s finest piece is “The Letter,’ in which Doyle recreates the quiet drama involved in the drafting of a prelate’s offer to retire. The prelate in question here is Portland’s Archbishop John Vlazny (whose offer the Vatican apparently accepted). Vlazny tells Doyle matter-of-factly how, feeling a “sort of glee” over the prospect of retirement, he dictated his letter as soon as he arrived at the office. Roseanne, his secretary, adds that she “just couldn’t bring myself” to retrieve the tape and type up the statement. The plain speech and the elegiac tone reminded me of “It’s An Honor,” Jimmy Breslin’s piece on the digging of JFK’s grave.
But when it comes to controversy, historical or breaking, Doyle’s simply the wrong horse for the course. In “A Halting Holiness,” he ticks off the things he admires about Bl. Pope John Paul II and lines them up against the things that give him fits. Then, in one fell rhetorical swoop, he reconciles them all: “But John Paul’s greatest accomplishment, I believe, is that he was so patently and daily and persistently Us: fear and flaw, virtue and vice, brilliance and blindness.” Look, ambivalence toward a pope is normal. But no serious thinker would dare try to smooth over so bumpy a record as John Paul’s with a blast of mysticism. That’s cheating.
And I’m quibbling. Doyle knows his strengths too well to venture into this territory very often. Most of his stories make me sigh for the hours I spent listening at the knee of my old parish’s chronicler. Some of her stories were scandalous, but others were, as Doyle observes, holy. Having just undergone baptism one Easter Vigil, an ASU student with a class joker’s nature sprang up from the font like Shamu, soaking five rows of people with holy water. Thus re-baptized, they made the sign of the cross, and waited till later to worry about their good clothes.
Doyle offers these cleansing moments on tap, and it seems to me we need them. It’s the easiest thing in the world to be sucked into a kind of Curmudgeon Catholicsm, where world-weariness passes for faith and fussiness for piety. Stepping out from those boundaries won’t turn us into Holy Rollers. God’s transcendence won’t feel too dissed if we pause a little to recognize His immanence. When Jesus said that man doesn’t live by bread alone, He could well have meant we could also use some sweet mush.
And as for the sex, well, maybe Doyle’s publisher will print an edition large enough to fit a copy of Christopher West inside.