Brian Doyle (1956-2017) and His Head Full of Swirling Dreams

categories: Cocktail Hour


Brian Doyle died yesterday. For the last week I have been e-mailing back and forth with Bill McAvoy, a friend of mine and a close friend of Brian’s since the two of them were young. Bill has been giving me updates on Brian’s decline as well as doing some eloquent writing of his own about their nearly fifty year-long friendship. At one point Bill wrote to say that while he knew that Brian was well-respected he was a little surprised at all the important awards and honors he was accruing, and at the outpouring of support from the literary community. I told him that I, living inside that world, was not surprised.


I mostly knew Brian from a time before we were writers or at least before we were published writers. In fact he might have been the only person I knew in my community who said, as I did then, “I want to be a writer.” I played some basketball with him and drank some beers with him but mostly what I remember from that time, when we were both in our twenties, was cornering him at parties and trying to find out if he knew any secrets about this strange quest we had both decided to take up. I don’t know if this is true or not but he may have been the only person I knew in Boston who I talked to in that way. Everyone else seemed to look at you sideways when you started talking about writing and asking, reasonably enough, what you had published. It was a time when we both had, to steal a title from a piece that Brian later wrote about one of his heroes, Robert Louis Stevenson, “heads full of swirling dreams.” That time before the dreams begin to be realized is a dangerous one and I was lucky to have Brian to talk to.


It wasn’t until we were both a few books into our writing careers, almost two decades later, that we talked to each other again. I loved Brian’s work, the electricity and humor and play of it and the way that the natural world and animals always wove their way through it. In 2005, I had just started a new magazine called Ecotone and I wrote to Brian to see if he could send us anything. He did and we accepted a piece called “Fishers” and he wrote back: “I am happy to have Fishers ecotoned.” The piece was selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007 and over the next decade Brian would be one of Ecotone’s best and most regular contributors.  As we worked on the edits for that first piece, we also corresponded about our careers. At the time neither of us had published novels, which had been our dream when we talked when we were young. Brian wrote:


My secret inky ambition is to try to write one of everything — a book of poems, a novel, a play, a movie, a book of fictions — so I think I am sort of stuck on five essay tomes for the nonce. Race you to a novel, though.


It was a race Brian easily won. If I am counting right, he published five novels. And in those novels he did something that I had always dreamed, and still dream, of doing: making animals and nature vital characters, not mere background figures or setting. In fact, while we had never talked about it way back when, it would turn out that we worked very similar literary turf. (Not long ago when I was interviewed for a piece about humor in nature writing I was not at all surprised to find Brian’s name in the same piece.) Outside of our twenties, we only met once in person. That was two years ago, about this time of year, before I did a reading at Powell’s in Portland when we had drinks outside a nearby restaurant. I remember we laughed a lot. I remember he had an amused, sometimes skeptical, sometimes delighted look on his face that I remembered from almost thirty years earlier. We probably talked about basketball, and how great we were, more than we talked about writing. But even if we didn’t talk about it openly we both knew we were in very different places than we had been in when we last met. The uncertain quests we had begun back then were well underway, though Brian’s would end much sooner than planned.


When I first heard the news about Brian’s brain tumor last November I was shocked. I wrote him a long e-mail which he, unsurprisingly, didn’t have the time or energy to answer. I would like to say I kept him steadily in my mind since then but you know how life works. The busy-ness of it swallows you up, and you stay occupied with your preoccupations, and even the great tragedies of others only break through now and then.


This week I wrote to my friend Bill about my new book and he wrote back to say the news about Brian was not good. Hospice had come to the home, he told me in one note and in another he told me Brian could no longer speak. I thought about that, a writer losing his voice. Bill also sent me something he himself had written while insisting “I’m not a writer.” Maybe not but it is a moving piece. It tells the story of the time Bill and Brian, two not-too well off Long Island kids, home from college and working at menial jobs to try and pay off their student loans, snuck into a Springsteen Concert at Madison Square Garden, and then, amazingly snuck backstage where they ended up briefly hanging out with the Boss. Bill also wrote that he and Brian would continue to listen to and talk about Springsteen over the years and that while his favorite albums were the earlier ones, Brian grew to consider The Rising his favorite album. If you know the album and you know Brian’s work, this is no surprise at all.


Like a lot of us, I am pretty good at repressing stuff and while I thought a lot about Brian over the last week the reality of what was happening didn’t really ever break through. Not until Friday when I decided to clear a cluttered and stressful workday out of my head by going for a run in the woods. I was wearing my little ipod shuffle, blasting it really, anything to help me plod along at my middle-aged pace. And then it happened, about half way through the run. The song The Rising came on and I was bawling like a baby. Big heaving tears. For Brian yes, but for me too, and certainly for our long-ago youthful heads full of swirling dreams, dreams both realized and unrealized.


“I could tell you tales,” Brian wrote me once in another e-mail. “Was there ale and time you would weep. And yet we are all shambling highways for error.”


Brian and I were not close, not the way Bill and he were. Are. Not were. During my run I listened to The Rising over and over, four times in all, and during that intense burst I really thought about, or more accurately felt what it meant to lose Brian Doyle and his swirling dreams.


After the fifth time listening, I skipped ahead to listen to Mary’s Place, and then finished off with the Promised Land.



P.S. Here is a short piece Brian wrote about the creation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Brian had more than a little Stevenson in him.

P.P. S. Brian also contributed to Bill and Dave’s. Usually I draw cartoon heads of our guests but Brian distinguished himself by being our only contributor ever to send us a self-portrait. If you scroll down from this entry you will see that we have re-posted Brian’s most recent piece for us below.



  1. james campbell writes:

    Beautiful tribute, David. Wish I would have known him.

  2. Brian Friesen writes:

    We need more people like Brian, not fewer.
    Support he and his family this Wednesday by shopping at Broadway Books in Portland, OR – they are donating percentage of proceeds to a fund for them.

  3. Tommy writes:

    He was the better basketball player! Thanks for this!!

  4. Bill Diskin writes:

    Thank you for this. Though I never met Brian Doyle — only connected with him over a couple fanboy e-mails I sent him about his work — it feels somehow like a good friend has died. That, I believe, is the power of writing. And the power of a writer finding ways to transfer his spirit onto the page. All best to Brian’s wife and children. I wish I could wave a wand and send them comfort and understanding.