Since we last spoke, I’ve tried angel dust.
Or whatever it is that Brian Doyle sprinkled into his short essays about the natural world.
I’m late to the party on this writer, who died of brain cancer in 2017 at age 60. My initiation came this past weekend.
I’d stumbled on his hummingbird story while, coincidentally, keeping an eye on our own hummingbird feeder outside the window. We’d been bringing the feeder in at night so the nectar wouldn’t freeze. I assumed the tiny birds would belly up to the bar in a flash, but they’re nowhere to be seen. Now I understand. It’s too big a gamble for them. If they burn the energy to make the food run, and it turns out the feeder’s frozen or empty, they could be done for. They’re probably hunkered down in semi-hibernation. These joyas voladoras – or “flying jewels,” as the first white explorers in the Americas called hummingbirds — have to suppress their natural exuberance when it’s this cold outside; swashbuckling is just too metabolically expensive. “A hummingbird’s heart is a lot of the the hummingbird,” Doyle writes. That great heart, the “wet engine” of it, is such an energy hog that it needs fuel all day long. The price of that trait, Doyle writes, “is a life closer to death.” Hummingbirds suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature.
In some ways Doyle’s writing style — call it homiletic maximalism — is pretty unfashionable these days.
That’s why I like it.
It’s really the opposite of so much of the bloodless nonfiction you encounter now – opinions hedged, grace notes cut for space, excesses trimmed to adhere to aesthetic codes still on the books from MFA programs circa 1980. And of course, the faintest hint of woo scrubbed for fear of ridicule.
Everybody’s playing defense. Brian Doyle is the corrective. He went for it. I’m fascinated how a person can even get away with writing about faith these days for a largely secular audience. That takes stones. And those run-on sentences — images strung together with ‘and’a—I’m convinced that’s the way he actually saw the world: one damn miracle after another. (You see how infectious this is? Read even a little Boyle and you get all homiletic yourself.) The sustained gaze of a man simply drunk on the natural world. We could all use a double shot of that right about now.
I decided to spend a whole day with the guy. I’d work my way through the the archive of “Epiphanies,” his column in American Scholar, then move on to other essays and the short stories with the irresistible titles (“Bin Laden’s Bald Spot,” “The Mighty Currawongs”) — joyas voladoras, all. Or mostly all. Mink River and the other novels would have to wait. There’s only so much wonder you can metabolize in one go.
I’ll spare you a full accounting of the internal stirrings my Big Doyle Day occasioned. Just to say that, should you try this experiment yourself, I doubt you’ll regret it. Joyas Voladoras is as good a trailhead as any. The little slip of a story isn’t just about hummingbirds, of course it isn’t. It starts in their world but lifts off into the loftiest precincts the human spirit. The last sentence is one for the ages:
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, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.