This book is many things, but mostly it is a celebration of storytelling. It is Brian Doyle’s imagining of the tale Robert Louis Stevenson might have written about a brief period he spent in San Francisco while waiting for his beloved Fanny. Rooming at the house of John and Mary Carson he tells a warm hearted and spirited adventure of their lives – both together and apart – and pesents a loving paean to the city. Appropriating the voice of Stevenson, whom Doyle admires as a writer and a man, is brilliant, as both men are storytellers to their bones. This is a tale of love and adventure around the globe; of a city alive with sounds and smells and voices and light.
I must make a confession here. Brian Doyle is one of my favorite writers. Some take him to task for his affection for adjectives and his disdain for the comma, but I find that he writes like life feels. Only more so. He has a knack for peeling back artifice and opening the heart. I have not read a book of his where I didn’t find myself giggling or weeping, often at the same time; where I haven’t sighed with recognition or had to set the book down to catch my breath. This book was published less than two months before Brian died of brain cancer in May of 2017, words still difficult for me to write, and one reason it took me so long to read. For months, each time I started it, I had to stop for the tears. I am so glad that I finally read it as it brought much pleasure. Here is a taste –
“Again we pause to smell the wonderful symphony or cacophony of scents : the irresistible hint of ocean and sea-wrack and tide flat, the sharp pungency of pine and cypress and madrone, the tendrils of scent trailing after railroads and meat-packing and sugar-refining, even, perhaps, very faintly, an iota of cigar smoke from the cheroots that every man and boy in San Francisco appears to burn from dawn to dusk. If we are fanciful we can say that we apprehend hints of opium and lust…”
And one more –
“There is much else to tell, and little time to tell it, and the words I have are thin for what I wish to say. He was kind; he worked hard and well and without a word; he was gentle; he was fair and honest; he treated each being in just the same way; with a grave attentiveness that spilled easily into laughter if it could. Even then, not much more than a boy himself, you could see the man being formed, and knew the man to be your good and true friend, as long as life…”
So, before I go to quoting half the book I will just say, read Brian Doyle if you get a chance. And be ready for your heart to expand. Having read most of his books – novels, essays, non fiction, proems – I am ready to recommend others if you like. For me, he is a writer once encountered, never forgotten.