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Book Review: 'Bin Laden's Bald Spot' by Brian Doyle

Red Hen Press $16.95 paperback, 160 pages

Brian Doyle's fiction has drawn comparisons to the work of an illustrious and diverse list of writers that includes David Foster Wallace, Raymond Carver, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.

Those comparisons aren't a stretch. His latest book, a collection of short stories called "Bin Laden's Bald Spot," illustrates how avidly Doyle likes to experiment with narrative structure; draw tersely spoken characters; riff using folksy humor but also with 19th-century American poetic rhapsody. This writer has absorbed much of the American literary canon.

But that's perhaps the source of the problem. These qualities appear as flashes of talent and enthusiasm but rarely in a sustained manner, and too often jumbled together within a single three- or four-page story. "Bin Laden's Bald Spot" provokes interest in Doyle's talent but not much more.

Doyle is no literary pretender or wannabe, however. He's quite accomplished as the author of nearly a dozen previous books of fiction and nonfiction and as the editor of the respected Portland Magazine, published by the University of Portland.

Reading this collection it's also clear Doyle's got a big heart and open mind for oddball characters and quirky, far-reaching situations. In one story, a husband talks many of his wife's ex-lovers into an improbable road trip. In another, a man finds a baby -- in his garden, of all places -- before chatting up the child's parent, who happens to be a neighbor. Doyle also conjures up a Joseph Kennedy-like scion who bares parts of his soul to a bartender.

Rich potential abounds in these storylines, at least on the surface. But Doyle doesn't really inhabit characters and as a consequence we don't believe in them or the stories, which often have the feel of mere sketches.

What shines distractingly is Doyle's love of the single-sentence William Faulkner-style stream of consciousness. It dominates almost to the point of obsession and where I felt Doyle was merely showing off. Here's a relatively mild example:

"People think when you drive a tow truck you must get the girls, says Denny, because you have to tow women of course, I mean half the world is women, right and their cars are always breaking down because they don't change the oil, they just don't, I don't know why, and a little smoke coming out of the hood freaks them out totally, but you take a guy, a guy would drive with ... flames shooting out of his car, he would probably think that was cool, you know what I'm saying?"

Perhaps Doyle is working in the cool, postmodern manner of one of his apparent influences, Wallace. Like Wallace's, perhaps Doyle's stories intend to operate on a meta level: narratives about narratives, narratives that upend conventions of time, structure and voice.

The most nimble writers can allow characters to live and breathe under such a complex conceit. At times, Wallace was criticized for being more impressive as a literary showman than for any belief in his characters or the story he was presumably telling.

Doyle's got the ability to be a fine storyteller, as he showed in "Mink River," his first novel and an Oregon Book Award finalist, and a compelling insider to the human condition. But with his latest book, he seems to just want to dazzle with sentences.

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