The Plover, by Brian Doyle


This 2014 work is quite a novel, quite an unusual novel. Indeed, a tour de force. It breaks so many rules, in fact, as it creates worlds of its own. It offers both a real world and an imaginary world, each created with poetry, sensitivity, and humor. But most significant are the many rules of fiction it breaks—with its endless, rhythmic sentences, its magic realism of talking birds, and its direct and indirect addressing of the reader.

This is the story of a man, Declan O’Donnell, who journeys around the vast Pacific in his small fishing boat, the Plover. He revels in his solitude, but slowly takes on passengers along the way, passengers who expand his and our awareness of the expanse and depths of both the Pacific and the human experience. But this book requires patience. It is not a book for everyone. For a long while, I wondered where it was going, much less where the boat and Declan, its captain, were going. Finally, I realized that there were no rules. That I was to experience here the journey within as much as the novel without. That this was not just about reality, this was also an inner voyage, a journey into the meaning of human nature and the implications of our natural environment.

This Pacific voyage is so real, however, that one wonders how Doyle has made it come alive with such detail. Yes, the credits listed in his acknowledgements suggest tremendous research, which is often the key to richly conceived novels such as this. But one also speculates that it is time he has spent at sea himself that has enabled Doyle to capture this experience so brilliantly.

And yet the strength of this novel is not in that reality, but in the magic, meaning the author’s imagination. In the miracle of an impaired, dumb child, for example, who can communicate with birds, one of whom suddenly enables her to speak. And in other birds that give comfort and anticipate danger. There is even literary magic in the long, complex, yet clear sentences that stretch the core of a thought or of a situation to its verbal limits.

Underlying the magic and the beauty, however, is a story, for Doyle understands that he needs a story in order to draw the reader through what are at times ephemeral pages. And so the hero Declan picks up various passengers, each with a story to tell and each contributing to the journey. There is an old friend Piko, and his daughter Pipa who has been crippled by an accident and cannot talk; Tauromauri, a woman so huge she is first taken to be a man; Tungaru, a minister for fisheries, etc., who dreams of a Utopian nation of Pacific islands; and Danilo, a refugee with a marvelous singing voice. And finally, for suspense, there is the mysterious Tanets, a ship in pursuit of the Plover. Why is its captain, Enrique, so intent on sinking the Plover and its passengers? It will become clear when he becomes the final passenger.

There is additional suspense in a typhoon, a kidnapping and rescue, a hijacking, and a sea battle, but it is balanced by Declan’s introspection as he seeks to escape society, and society keeps confronting him with new passengers, new adventures, and new implications. And hovering in Declan’s mind are the writings of Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher whose thinking enriches the context of Declan’s search for meaning across a vast and empty Pacific Ocean.

One senses that Doyle declines to be limited by the rules of fiction. Perhaps this follows his interest in the spiritual aspects of life. Thus, just as that level of perception breaks the bounds of reality, so does a similar perspective seek to break theough the limits of the literary world. I do wonder how much this limits his exposure inside the literary world, but one suspects his primary concern is exploring the limits of both literature and the human experience—as, indeed, Declan is exploring his own limits across a Pacific also limitless.

This novel offers the continuation of Declan’s life after he fades into the Pacific on the final pages of Mink River. One wonders if Doyle will continue Declan’s story, and extend these books into a trilogy. He does open the door to a third volume, when Declan discovers a potential love on the final pages here. Such a continuation may depend, however on Doyle’s interest in exploring further a Declan who has changed from a troubled hero in the first volume to a solitary, searching hero in the second. Do still new adventures await him, in which he will further pursue the fulfillment he seems denied? It would appear that love might well offer a new, and perhaps spiritual, horizon. (April, 2016)

Note: Because of a previous contact, I sent the author my review; and he wrote this in his response: “I am interested in writing novels that are experiences in and of themselves. I want the language to be a world; I want the reader to be lured in and mesmerized; I want them to hear and see and smell what the beings in the book do; I want you to be startled when you find a blank page at the end; I want you to come with me into imagination and possibility and the probability of the nominally impossible; I want you to question what you think you know; I want to soar and sail and dive and delve; I want to push the form as far as I can, and I have only one rule: be clear. As long as the reader doesn’t get clogged and slowed, everything is possible.”

the thorny grace of it, by Brian Doyle

Because I am acquainted with the author, I feel a certain trepidation in commenting on this new (2013) interesting collections of essays, essays in which each one carries a small spiritual or family message. The emphasis is on the smallness, for these essays run only three or four pages. But each makes a pithy statement that crosses our spiritual heritage with our common humanity.

In fact, I would not ordinarily write a comment about a book like this. But I do so, because I relate to it. The author has a spiritual perspective that I share. And I have long realized that making a comment helps me to think further about a book—and appreciate it more.

In retrospect, what strikes me first is that, in this era of Church factions, it is impossible here to assign Doyle within the Catholic political spectrum. He comes closest when he evaluates Pope John Paul II, both his strengths  (“a man of stunning presence and charisma, a corporate leader of wonderful creativity, a figure of light and hope for many millions”) and his weaknesses (“ a man who choked off liberation theology…a man who presided over a church riven with the rapes of children…a man who…dismissed women from any serious role”).

And one senses that this political reticence is deliberate. That neither he nor the publications he wrote for wish to make a political statement regarding Church doctrine. Instead, he explores the common elements in our daily human experience, an experience that often but not always arises out of our spiritual life.

He subtitles this book Essays for Imperfect Catholics. For he is often exploring the human weaknesses in our family life and our spiritual life. That we do not always live up to our idea of spiritual perfection. Or human perfection. And what Doyle does here is recognize this—and in doing so acknowledges his past naïveté, his current regret, or his often belated understanding.

Most of his essays reveal something of his own inner life, but a few also touch the reader’s own sensibility. For me, these include: exaggerated speculation on Jesus’ life in his missing teenage years; a humorous evaluation of Catholic writers by the imaginary Saint Francis de Sales Parish Book Club; an archbishops letter of resignation at age 75; a brother’s advice on how to keep a priest off-balance when in confession (keep bringing up lust); and the memory of hauling storm windows up from the cellar each winter.

Some essays are humorous, some are touching, some strike a cord of memory. An example of the humor: “From the age of thirteen when a boy in Jewish tradition enters manhood, to the age of thirty, when a boy in Irish-American tradition enters manhood.” An example of both empathy and self-awareness: “On the way home, I thought about…how these sweet honest funny moments [a baptism] are so holy I cannot easily find words for them, which is why we share these stories, which is what we just did.”

Other essays range from a regret at the life Osama bid Laden chose; to an essay on his father, his own fatherhood, and the Father; to the story of a star basketball guard who turns down scholarships to enter the marines—and loses his left hand in battle.

The range of these essays portrays a man who understands that a full life includes a spiritual life. He is a man who understands the meaning of family, of community, and of our eternal destiny. But he is also a writer who understands the power of a revelation to be found in a single moment, a moment we may all have experienced but most likely have never thought of again.

This is a modest book. It is for a very special audience. An audience which acknowledge its spiritual life and makes it a part of its daily living. It is more a book to be dipped into as a reminder of that life than a book to be read in one sitting. It is a book that enriches the reader who pauses and thinks for a moment after reading each essay. And in offering a special opportunity for reflection, each of these essays opens to ourselves an opportunity to review our own experience with our family and our church in a timeline of eternity. (January, 2014)