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Think Out Loud

Northwest Passages: Brian Doyle

Pete Springer/OPB

The public works department in the tiny coastal town of Neawanaka fixes everything. It is run by two men who have been dear friends since one pulled the other out of a river. In the opening scene of Brian Doyle’s first novel, Mink River, they share a beer and salmonberries, and debate whether their public works mission goes too far.

Listen, my friend, says the taller man, holding his line of talk like a rope, did you ever consider that maybe the scope of public works as we have conceived it is too big altogether? I mean other towns and cities use their departments just to fix roads and sewer lines and streambeds and such.

We do those things.

But we are also prey to what I might call a vast and overweening ambition. I mean, really, to preserve history, collect stories, repair marriages, prevent crime, augment economic status, promote chess, manage insect populations, run sports leagues, isn’t that a bit much? We even give haircuts.

The taller man is Worried Man. His shorter friend is Cedar. Neawanaka sits in “a little green cupped hand of a place,” where a river drains into the sea and “the rain starts in November and doesn’t really end, as a continous moist narrative, until July.” Some peoples’ people have lived here for five thousand years. Others arrived more recently, escaping Irish blight by boat.

A policeman addicted to Puccini lives here. So does a man who beats his son, and his son; a nun and a crow in love; a mother who kneels by the river, listening; a doctor who names each of his daily dozen cigarettes for the apostles, and a little boy with red, brown and black hair who whizzes through life on his bicycle until he speeds right off a cliff. They are intertwined by joy and trouble, and by mere proximity in time and place.

Although Mink River is Doyle’s first work of fiction (and the first novel ever to be published by Oregon State University Press), he has written nine other books and dozens of essays. He writes about marriage, struggle, his child’s heart surgery, Oregon pinot, writing, and grumpy, salty saints. He also edits Portland Magazine, published by the University of Portland. Doyle calls Mink River a song of Oregon, another chance at connection.

Deep in the bones of writers there is some shimmering urge to reach into someone’s heart and squeeze it.

What writing squeezes your heart? What stories sing to you of Oregon? What Brian Doyle have you read?

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