10 July 2015

A kind of review (or maybe not) of Brian Doyle's 'The Plover'

What do you say about Brian Doyle’s new book, The Plover, which very soon will not be his new book because already he has Martin Marten in the pipeline and at the end of The Plover you can even read an extract from Martin Marten? It’s like he wants to be done with The Plover almost as soon as he’s published it, although why anyone would want to be done with a book as crazy and compelling and strange and unable-to-be-pinned-down and flawed but all-round excellent in a contentious way as The Plover beats me. Who knows why anyone would want to be done with that book and moving on to some other book, which in this case means the anyone is Brian Doyle and the other book which is being moved on to is Martin Marten. Yes, it beats me. Bless me; indeed.

But this is supposed to be about The Plover, not Martin Marten, although maybe it’s more about Brian Doyle, who, if you haven’t read him you should if you like writing that’s nuttier than squirrel shit (a delightful phrase I stole from another excellent writer who’s unknown for anything other than the marvellous piece of writing which you simply must read, which is to say The Riflemaker Dreams of Africa by Matthew Clark, about whom nothing is known except he lives in Maine and has written nothing else but if he has please let me know because I burn to read more of his writing). But back to Brian Doyle.

In fact, back to The Plover.

Which is typical Brian Doyle writing but maybe — and I say this hesitantly and with great respect to this writer whose work I will devour the way a starving squirrel devours a happened-upon-by-chance nut with a look that says nothing on this god’s earth will get between me and this nut so don’t even THINK about it — but maybe this book isn’t quite up to the genius of some of his shorter pieces of writing like Raptorous or this book’s predecessor, the inestimably wonderful Mink River. Maybe The Plover can’t match those. Maybe that might be true. Maybe in places he tries too hard. Maybe the literary devices — the long detailed mostly unpunctuated lists which sometimes include a detail, an observed thing, that makes you almost gasp out loud and exclaim that is so perfect because it makes the list, well, so perfect; the run-on sentences like a stream-of-consciousness; the obviously deliberate flouting of grammar and correct spellings of words which sometimes aren’t even proper words at all unless you’re Brian Doyle but are obviously the right words anyway; the direct addressing of the reader sometimes without clearly identifying the narrator who might be one of the characters in the book or might not and instead might be the book’s author who might not be Brian Doyle even though Brian Doyle is the book’s author — those literary devices, which will make some readers froth and foam and snarl and write angry letters such as Brian Doyle used for his excellent short piece entitled Letters and Comments on My Writing, seem too obvious, especially once you’ve read plenty of Brian Doyle, and while they confer an energy that makes you wonder whether the page will no longer be able to contain the words, which will leap up off the page and run around naked and yelling, you nevertheless think sometimes what the story needs would be some more quiet, more controlled passages so the book didn’t strike you as having ADHD. That could have happened. Yes indeed. That book with less relentless ADHD could have happened. Yes it could. Brian Doyle could have written that book. At least I think perhaps he could have. But maybe if he had he wouldn’t be Brian Doyle.

Then there’s the risk that if you read too much Brian Doyle — after you’ve read too much Brian Doyle and have been transported into his magical realist run-on-sentenced long-listed crazy-charactered Irish-inflected world with its liberal lacing of fecking feck fecks and Jesus Christmases — you can’t write anything without lapsing into the style of Brian Doyle, which is not necessarily a bad thing unless you’re one of the frothing foaming snarling letter writers and might even be a truly wonderful and wondrous bless me thing were it not for one tiny little less-than-warbler-sized problem which is in fact an enormous problem — humungous enough to maybe fill his ginormous Jesus-Christmas-can-you-believe-how-astonishingly-huge-his-world-is world — and that huge tiny problem is that Brian Doyle already created that world and occupies it. That’s a problem.

That problem’s a puzzle, too, because how can one person create a world that big and occupy all of it? But maybe he does indeed occupy all that seething energetic world, and around it lurk and sneak the other writers who lack the eptitude and wit and energy and maybe ADHD and irrepressibilitousness and fearlessness and feralness with words and don’t-careness and sheer wild longing imagination possessed by and possessing the one and singular Brian Doyle. Maybe those other writers lurk and sneak and sniff like lonely mutts and wish they’d been Brian Doyle only someone else, namely themselves, but Brian Doyle did it first and best (or maybe Kerouac did it first after a fashion which wasn’t even a fashion when he did it first, but I have to say Brian Doyle does it better or at least differently because despite the great flood of pouring energetic words, all of Brian Doyle’s writing is coherent. How does he do that?)

Maybe the problem, or not so much a problem as a slight worry, is that Brian Doyle has become too much like Brian Doyle. But even if he is at risk of becoming too much like himself, you should read The Plover unless you absolutely loathe and detest his Brian Doyle-like writing style and might be tempted to snarl and write angry letters, in which case maybe go and find some Jane Austen and ask yourself why you froth and foam over Brian Doyle’s perfunctory punctuation when J.A. didn’t know her comma from her colon either.

So, you should most definitely read The Plover (probably), but first you should read some short pieces like those to which I’ve already directed you and in addition This Particular Badger and maybe most of all The Place Where I Write: Brian Doyle. Then read Mink River.

Then you’re ready for The Plover.

1. Oh, I see Martin Marten has already been published in hardback. Crikey. What's Brian Doyle on? I want some.
2. I like much of Kerouac’s writing, especially The Dharma Bums, but even you, the world’s greatest appreciator of Kerouac, whoever and wherever you are, have to admit some of his stuff was, well, gibberish.
3. You should not take anything I said as a criticism of Jane Austen. Did I say her punctuational ineptitude made her a bad writer? No, you're right, I did not. Thank you.

1&2. This is a black-backed gull, not a plover. A gull figures prominently in The Plover, although that one was a herring gull, which we don't have in New Zealand.
3. This is a red-billed gull (tarapunga), which is much more similar to a herring gull than is the blackback but still isn't one.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

Based on This Particular Badger, I'm off to find more.

Lisa Emerson said...

Thank you for making me laugh out loud on this freezing cold day! LOVE it. (And methinks some of those paragraphs must have taken some writing!)

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen — great! Will be interested to hear what you think.

Lisa, I'm delighted :-) To be honest, I loved the freedom and energy of writing like this — it felt like playing. The tricky bit was making sure it was coherent, but even that felt satisfying.

Relatively Retiring said...

I might stick with Jane Austen and pictures of seagulls. Indeed.

Relatively Retiring said...


pohanginapete said...

RR, I do understand that this style isn't to everyone's liking and also drives some people nuts (I think of Truman Capote's comment about Kerouac: 'That's not writing, it's typing' — although apparently a lot more than mere dislike of the style underlies that put-down). Despite the first sentence of the post's penultimate paragraph I would dissuade you from attempting any of Brian Doyle's books because I wouldn't like to see you angry, least of all at me for wasting your time :-(

I can provide more photographs of gulls, though.

Relatively Retiring said...

Oh, c'mon! You know I like a challenge and I don't think you could ever waste anyone's time.
More seagulls are always good though.

pohanginapete said...

O.K.! Yes, I should've known that. (And thank you !)

Now, let's see if I can add a gull photograph to a comment ...

... no, sorry. I can't. Blogger won't let me :-(

Relatively Retiring said...

Blogger's having a bad day. When I try to verify that I'm not a robot I get Google images of assorted foods. Nice!

AJB said...


pohanginapete said...

I hope that was the good kind of wow, Andrew ;-)

butuki said...

For a long time I've been out of touch with great writing, mainly because bookstores in Japan have gradually been phasing out English books, and I cannot browse shelves anymore for surprises. Amazon is invaluable to me for being able to get a hold of books that otherwise I'd never be able to read, but it isn't good for getting recommendations and just happening upon new titles. I'm looking forward to reading what you've written about here. After my phase with American nature writing in the 80's and 90's, I'm looking for the next step to get passionate about. Thanks!

pohanginapete said...

Miguel, recommendations are always risky — for both the reader and the recommender — but I'll risk guessing you'll enjoy his writing. Try the short pieces I've mentioned first, and those will give you a good feel for his highly distinctive style. Let me know what you think :-)

butuki said...

Ha ha! But, it's the risk-taking that is part of the joy of discovering new books and new voices. It helps me take chances that I might not otherwise do on my own, and finding new ways to see things that I might not have considered. Most of the best books I'v e read were recommendations! So, thanks!

Zhoen said...

Can I love Brian Doyle AND Jane Austen?

pohanginapete said...

Of course, Zhoen. I like that ability to appreciate wildly different styles (and I use 'wildly' deliberately, thinking particularly of Brian Doyle).