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Brian Doyle: ‘great storyteller’ with sense of faith

The late Brian Doyle, award-winning author and editor of the University of Portland's magazine, is pictured in a 2012 photo. (CNS photo/Tim LaBarge)

TORONTO — It’s comforting to remember that any credible writer’s fiction does not disappear with the author’s death.

The late Brian Doyle was author of at least a dozen books, including the popular novel/memoir “Chicago” (2016), a semi-autobiographical tale of a writer’s coming of age. He also wrote innumerable short stories, essays and columns as the editor of the prestigious Portland magazine at the University of Portland.

Doyle’s body of work has been described by colleagues with such adjectives as uplifting, challenging, poetic and even luminous. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1978 with a degree in English literature and worked for a Catholic newspaper until 1991, when he moved to Oregon to take on the magazine position.

Holy Cross Father David Tyson, who since 2017 has been president of Holy Cross College at Notre Dame, knew Doyle from their many years together in Portland. Father Tyson was president of the university from 1990 to 2003.

“Brian was a great storyteller,” the priest told Catholic News Service. “He and I told each other stories about our lives sometimes for hours in his office. He was a gentle person, and he portrayed faith and spiritual life as gentle. For him, faith and spirituality were about stances in life. He knew faith could be hard and spirituality sometimes deceptive or a hoax. In those cases, he drew from a deep well of hope.”

Father Tyson said he believes Doyle’s spirituality and sense of the faith became stronger as he observed and reported on things going on around him.

“Like other Catholic authors, Brian could bring virtue to vice, hope to despair, grace to sin by his own truth telling in stories about human redemption being always possible.”

James Chesbro, an English teacher at Fairfield Preparatory School in Fairfield, Conn., noted something special in Doyle’s diverse body of work. Writing of Doyle in America magazine in June 2017, Chesbro noted, “I cannot think of any other contemporary American Catholic writers who have published as many books about spiritual matters as Doyle, while also being a frequent contributor to some of the country’s most esteemed secular literary journals and magazines.”

Chesbro suggested Doyle qualifies as an American “Catholic” writer because he practiced the religion and published about it. In addition, Chesbro said, Doyle wrote shamelessly about Catholic customs, beliefs, practices and mysteries in an effort to describe a faith — to borrow from Doyle in his “Grace Notes” collection of essays — that was “illogical, unreasonable, unthinkable, unprovable, nonsensical, countercultural, and in direct defiance of all evidence and human history. Isn’t that great?”

Marcus Covert, the current associate editor of Portland magazine, worked alongside Doyle for several years.

“Brian’s ‘Catholicness’ crept into practically everything he wrote, but never unintentionally,” Covert said. “He did keep the reader in mind. A book of prayers and ‘proems’ would give him room to spread his Catholic and spiritual wings.”

It was “Chicago,” however, that can be considered his most Catholic-themed piece of work.

The author offers a colorful description of his storytelling paradise early in the novel: “Suffice it to say that in my time with that magazine in Chicago I may well have met every riveting unfamous person in the city, including … a slew of people who quietly do the work of Catholic parishes in America, the vast majority of them women, who for the most part grinned when I said tart things about male dominance in the faith.”

Doyle also expressed what might be considered a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. In a stirring conclusion to “Chicago,” the protagonist reflects on somber stories waiting to be told.

“I was too young to pay attention to the fact that of the 3 million people in the city, maybe a million did not have quite enough to eat or lived in dangerous conditions or endured constant assault and battery or had no real hope or possibility of ever elevating their standards of living. I was too young to see the dense curtain of lies and shame and fear that muffles the screams of women and boys and girls who suffer such insidious predation … I was too young to pay attention to the remarkable virtues and vices of religions, and the ways they elevated their adherents, and stole from them, too.”

In keeping with his love for storytelling, Doyle provides a moving tribute to those who seek the truth in the most humble of ways. The unnamed protagonist of “Chicago” absorbs a key lesson of the lasting significance of seeing and telling.

“We listen for and collect and share stories,” the storytelling writer is advised. “Without stories, there is no nation and no religion and no culture. Without stories of bone and substance and comedy there is only a river of lies, and sweet and delicious ones they are, too. … It is a craft as necessary and nutritious as any other, and if you are going to be good at it, you must double your humility, triple your curiosity and quadruple your ability to listen.”

Doyle’s wife, Mary Doyle, an artist and illustrator in Portland, told CNS that her late husband regarded writing as a form of prayer. “He believed appreciation was a sacrament, and he knew his gift from the Maker was the ability to write about it, to be attentive to the unseen miracles everywhere and catch and spin them into gold, offering them to us with the glee of a child.”

Brian Doyle was born in New York in 1956 to a large Irish Catholic family; his father, Jim Doyle, was longtime head of the Catholic Press Association. Brian Doyle died of cancer in May 2017.