FEBRUARY 13, 2012
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 be less than satisfying. Two of the best stories in Bin Laden’s Bald Spot do much more, however. “Waking the Bishop,” about the death of a bishop and its untidy public aftermath, is reported in elegiac third-person, flitting (primarily) in and out of the viewpoint of Jack, the diocesan communications manager. There are problems with the cleric’s estate, large and small, not least of which is what to do with the deceased’s pet parrot, “a vile creature who hated everyone but the bishop.” Doyle handles the delicate estate negotiations with great skill, but his strongest achievement is bringing the late bishop to roaring, spitting life, as recalled by the communications director:
The fact is, Jack, the bishop would say, I do more priestly work at the grill in an hour than I do in the chancery in a month. Maybe I should open a rib shack, eh? You remember Christ cooking fish over that little fire after He made his comeback, no one talks much about that part of the gospels, eh, but me personally I think the guy was a barbecue maniac. You remember the lines from your namesake evangelist, Jack: Children, have ye any meat?, my favorite line in the gospels, eh, and the poor hapless apostles mumble no, and Jesus then miraculously arranges for 153 fish to line up for the grill, and you remember the next line, Jack, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread, and Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine. See? Barbecue as sacrament, Jack. It’s right there in the good book. We have only to follow His glorious example and we will be fed. You want a beer?
This well-rounded story conveys the arc of a distinguished man’s entire life, as well as the lives of his underlings, as they are obliged to dispense with his belongings with something like grace and dignity. And it’s damn funny, too.
In “Pinching Bernie,” an account of the crimes of Bernard Francis Cardinal Law, the unnamed narrator describes the archbishop’s past achievements, including a deal “where Episcopal priests who were married with kids could work in Catholic dioceses, which was how something you hardly ever see happened here and there, a priest making out with his wife on the beach, and barking at his kids that he would stop this car and turn around if there was any more fighting in the back seat!” In sharp contrast to the more whimsical tone of other stories, “Pinching Bernie” is extraordinary for the seething rage expressed by the narrator at Cardinal Law’s criminal negligence in the many cases of child molestation by Boston parish priests. Cardinal Law is “the slime bag’s slime bag, an all-pro slime bag” who escapes prosecution by flying to Rome and getting named to the Basilica di santa Maria Maggiore, where he is beyond the reach of justice. Up to this point, the story adheres to actual events (the real-life Cardinal remains ensconced inside the Vatican). But in “Pinching Bernie,” the narrator’s friend Jimmy goes to “see a guy about a guy” and “basically from this point on Bernie’s goose is cooked.” As it turns out, “it’s easier to pinch an archbishop than you might think.” The archbishop’s fictional redemption (wherein he’s returned to a life of monastic servitude in Boston) is far more fitting than its true-life counterpart.
Bin Laden’s Bald Spot encompasses worlds of absurdity and quotidian reality in the voices of ordinary citizens. Underneath the surface is a tenderness and attachment to life that makes the best of these stories really and truly sing.