by Brian Doyle
I have lived in Oregon for a quarter of a century. Ever since I arrived here I have been absorbed in the stories and history and literature of Oregon, and in its finest writers, especially the ones most interested in what the great Oregon writer Robin Cody calls Oregonness – writers like Barry Lopez and Ken Kesey and Ursula Le Guin and Molly Gloss and John Daniel and Robin Cody and the now half-forgotten wonderful writers Stewart Holbrook and Ben Hur Lampman.
In my own books of essays and poems and fiction and reportage over the years, all of them written in Oregon, I have tried, often, to catch something of Oregonness – the moist shaggy grace of the place, the sheer epic wonder and wealth of its vegetative and zoological sprawl, the sweep of space in its mountains and shores, the gleaming adamant muscular insistence of its rivers, the scent of sage and pine and salt and rain, the quiet courage and general cheer of its human beings, be they urban or burban or country folk.
So to have a novel of Oregonness singled out for the Oregon Book Award meant the world to me. It still does. I think about it every day. Yes, certainly I am proud, and my ego is burnished, and I revel in the esteem of my peers, and savor every note and clap on the back from friends and fellow scribblers and readers who like my books. Yes, I cashed the check right quick and applied it to college tuitions. Yes, I have the award certificate on the wall here in the small wooden room in Portland where I have written all my books. Yes, I feel taller and handsomer, having won an Oregon Book Award. Yes, I will always, the rest of my life, remember and relish the way our children touched my shoulders and arms and back and neck with shy pride in their dad. And yes, I will always, all the rest of my life, remember the look of pure utter absolute joy and pride on my wife’s face when we heard that a book of mine, a book she had read first before anyone else in the world, a book she read passage by passage as it was written week by week, had won an Oregon Book Award – you could write a whole book, and a very long and lovely one, too, about that look, and never get to all the shimmers and shivers of that look, no matter how hard you tried.
Yet to me the award seems like a verb, not a noun; something that is continually being awarded, sort of; for every day I think of other moments that somehow fed and fueled my years of trying to catch Oregonness in words. Ken Kesey’s seamed cheerful face and black porkpie hat. Barry Lopez’s grave tender amused gracious gentle bow as he greets people. Ursula Le Guin’s laser attentiveness, Molly Gloss’s quick sidelong grin, Craig Lesley’s gentlemanliness, Paulann Petersen’s sonorous voice, Kim Stafford’s pocketsful of tiny battered notebooks, of which he seems to have an endless supply; perhaps they breed in his jacket, and new ones the size of stamps are born every afternoon. Julie Mancini’s ferocious energy. The sharp bark of Brian Booth’s laugh when you caught him by surprise, and the way he could work a crowded room in thirty seconds per person, but in those thirty seconds you thought – no, you knew – that you had his full attention, the full force of his witness and interest, the full hunger of his insatiable curiosity; he really did want to know what you were thinking and reading, what you loved, who you were, what the roar of your heart burned for, what you meant, what you stood for – and all this in a minute; he was one of those remarkable people you would find yourself pouring your heart out to, as if he was a tall smiling unfrocked priest, and you a child unburdening yourself, suddenly, to your own surprise, of what you’d had no intention whatsoever of sharing at the cocktail party.
It was the lawyer and raconteur and scholar and bibliophile and Oregonness-addict Brian Booth who founded the Oregon Book Awards, and it is Brian Booth I think of this morning, as I stare at my Oregon Book Award on the wall. He died four years ago, at home, among his thousands of books, most of them stuffed with Oregonness; so he will never know of my award. But I tell you without the shadow of a doubt that he would have been delighted, and shaken my hand with fervor and pleasure, and I suppose part of the joy of the award for me, all the rest of my life, will be that handshake, which we never had, but somehow, mysteriously, wonderfully, always are having now.