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Post Road Magazine #34

Mink River by Brian Doyle

Devin Murphy

>In my twenties, I spent years working at sea and once cruised the entire length of Oregon without coming ashore. I watched that coastline and thought it was as wild and lovely as any I’d ever seen. The sea weary part of me longed to feel the mist that lingered where the dark forests met the water, touch my feet in the sand, and graze my fingers against the damp pine needles.

Years after that trip, a new literary journal invited me to submit a story to their second issue. When I went to see if they were legitimate, I found an essay by Brian Doyle in their first offering. Doyle’s work stunned me with its clear prose and evident high-hearted love of the world. When I read his biography, I found a career’s worth of his work for me to catch up on. I sent my story off for issue two, now hoping they would take it, and began bingeing on Doyle’s work.

Doyle is an essayist, story writer, and poet I quickly came to love.  His novel, Mink River, set in a small fictional town on that Oregon coast I fantasized about, performs a reverse riptide that yanked me in from a mile out to sea and onto the sands. There, a rush of odd townspeople spill forth from the trees and reveal their dazzling inner lives.

In this novel a man keeps secret a war injury that peeled all of his skin from the neck down like a loose sock. A philosophizing crow becomes a stoic hero. We go out on boats, then into the mountains, and explore the heart of a small community. On every page he makes the natural world shimmer. The book left me with a near paralytic case of writer’s jealousy and I had to put him aside out of awe.

Last year I read that Doyle had been diagnosed with what he called a ‘big honking brain tumor.”

This last month I read that he passed away.

This news brought me back to his work and I no longer have jealously for his skill. What I find is a deeply loving, philosophical, naturalist poet who was as talented a novelist as I could imagine. I am thrilled again by his writing and deeply saddened by his loss.

Returning to Mink River, I find an all rocks-upturned look at what it means to have family, friends, and a place shape you. He takes every story from his small town and wraps them together. It offers profound truths as ceaselessly as sea wrack touches that strange, dark coast.

Perhaps now, more so than ever, we know our country is full of small broken towns. The factory jobs are gone, and elsewhere the lumber industry has collapsed. But this may also be the time that we need stories like this, with characters who can recognize their limits and still carve deeper into their own hearts in search of what is worthy of love. Doyle’s book is full of conflict, but also love and a deep willingness to accept life. Standing firm yet humble becomes the enchanting draw. Doyle’s prose screams that it is necessary to look for beauty in the world and in each other; he writes it is not enough to just look, but you have to pitch your heart into it and into others to make a life full.

In doing this, he makes his own rules. He pours what must have been an interest in EVERYTHING into his work. By turns you find philosophy, the inner workings of Catholicism, the Romantics, natural history, war, northwestern native cultures, and a host of other topics. He shifts between gritty reality, over embellished poetic prose, and magical realism. His love of language leads this story until you get a sense of the soul of the place, and how its wildness is what truly offers the locals their personal salvation.

Doyle’s message rings true to me as I read the daily newspaper. It appears we need more people to uphold a world philosophy like his. In one piece for Orion Magazine, he says, “If you can’t make a new ant, don’t kill an old one.” I hope governments and industries can internalize and scale this message.

My recommendation: find his work. Start anywhere. His stunning language will make you swoon for whatever place he takes you to. You may feel a pull of love for the natural world. Even an urge to become an environmentalist. Go with it. We need more of those these days. Find your way to Mink River, to that mystic coastline. Then, sadly, find your way to the final letter he writes knowing he is leaving the world. There you will find a humble, grateful man who made a job out of loving his life. He respectfully requests, to whatever great firmament may exist, to return as an otter. Reason enough for me to draw a line in the sand and speak out for the sanctity of the natural world. For otters everywhere and always.

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