BRIAN DOYLE, THE EDITOR of Portland Magazine, is the author of ten books of essays, and the novelMink River. His essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's and The American Scholar, and have been reprinted in Best American Essays and Best American Science & Nature Writing. In his new collection Bin Laden's Bald Spot, there's a rollicking, high-energy quality, as if many of the stories were told by a garrulous barfly, one with a gift for vignettes that lead nowhere but are lots of fun to listen to. Here, for example, are the opening lines of "Do You Think We Should Pull Over?"
Which famously was the question my friend Pete asked me as we were driving in New Hampshire and his car, this was the Datsun, BURST INTO FLAMES! FLAMES WERE SHOOTING FROM THE ENGINE RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR EYES! and Pete asks hesitantly do you think we should pull over? as I am shrieking pull over!!!!! and hammering on the dashboard hoping that indeed he will soon pull over so we can exit sprinting across the icy stubbled fields into the dense and brooding forest, from which refuge we watched the fire burn out eventually, and shuffled wearily back to the car, and stood there freezing and snarling until a guya came by and drove us into town in his truck, which had, no kidding, huge flames painted on it. We agreed that the flames on his car looked pretty cool.
Normally any sentence frozen in all caps would seem mere gimmickry, an attempt to conjure an unearned hysteria. But Doyle makes it work here, balancing the heated language against an effect that's more measured throughout the story. He captures perfectly a barfly's manic account of events (both profound and mundane) in the life of Pete, his car, and his dog, Lester.
Several stories retain this voluble, talkative quality. In "AAA Plus," the narrator's car breaks down and he tells us of the many benefits of purchasing AAA Plus roadside assistance (as opposed to standard AA coverage), including the opportunity to meet a tow-truck driver named Denny. Denny provides more than the standard service as he transports the narrator and his kids to a planned mountain skiing trip because, says Denny, "you got AAA Plus, man, you are golden, I can tow you from here to fecking kingdom come, which includes of course the mountain."
This quality extends even to the more serious "King of the Losers," in which a 16-year-old narrator (many of Doyle's characters are nameless) abducts two children belonging to his wayward sister and her boyfriend, the title character. Without the narrator's intercession, the children will be taken by social services, "which is the pit." So the teenage uncle and the kids drive around all day in search of a plan, while the King of the Losers remains locked in the trunk of the car. Through a hole in the backseat, the narrator tells him "that matters are in hand, we have diapers and animal crackers and the kids are not with social service, which is where they would be if [you were] captain of the ship."
Doyle has an unfortunate habit of resting some of his stories on their premises; once the premise has been established, not much happens. This may be in line with their brevity (some stories are no more than three or four pages), but leaving things up in the air — as much as this resembles what we choose to call "real life" — can b...