By Edward Hoagland
304 pages, $25
Edward Hoagland was born in New York City in 1932, but his parents
moved with him at the age of eight to the leafy, WASPy quiet of
New Canaan, Connecticut ("an ironic name for an anti-Semitic town").
This early-life exodus from city to exurb established a pattern
for his later peripatetic wanderings. In search of noble loners
and endangered species, he has journeyed to the far northern reaches
of British Columbia, the voodoo swamps of Louisiana and the killing
fields of Africa, always returning to his natal city of New York,
that glittering edifice of passion and vice.
"There should be a museum of writers' shoes," he writes in his
new memoir, Compass
Points. "Charles Dickens's, Jack London's, Dostoyevsky's,
Defoe's, Twain's, Turgenev's, Stephen Crane's, Dreiser's, Sherwood
Anderson's, George Orwell's, James Baldwin's--on and on, city or
country, pick your own particular crew of walkers. More than first
editions, their shoes would be a memorial." Based on his body of
work and his preferred method of locomotion, his own contribution
would be assured. One does hope, however, that the museum design
would include hermetically sealed glass partitions, since he admitted
in a long-ago essay that during one strange year of his life, "my
feet smelled terrible ... like a forest fire."
Hoagland has published 20 books, the earliest of which were exuberant
explored the seedy, sweaty milieus of boxing and circus life. His
father, a solid corporate man, wasn't pleased at his son's choice
of vocation. When he got his hands on the galleys of Hoagland's first
novel, Cat Man, he found it vulgar and feared it would tarnish
his own reputation. He called a lawyer at Houghton Mifflin and tried
to hold up publication, to no avail.
When it appeared in 1954, Cat Man won a fellowship prize
from Houghton Mifflin and earned good reviews. Papa Hoagland's business
acquaintances even congratulated him on his son's success. But two
subsequent novels failed to sell more than a couple thousand copies,
and Hoagland reached a crisis point in both his writing and personal
lives. His first marriage was splitting up; his confidence in his
fictional inspiration was petering out.
He turned to journal writing to rescue himself, and from there
made the leap to the personal essay. Tortuous (and torturous) as
the route to it was, this form proved most agreeable to his gifts--long,
supple, unspooling sentences, an innate feeling for prose rhythms,
a slightly skewed sense of humor and a knack for the telling anecdote.
Nearly 40 years of nonfiction followed, one of the most intriguing
sustained efforts by an American essayist in the postwar period.
He found his voice in that form so naturally that an Edward Hoagland
Reader was first published in 1968.
Compass Points, his capstone achievement, reads like a cross
between the cantankerous eloquence of Edward Abbey (a longtime friend)
and the intimate, gentle self-mockery of Phillip Lopate, with a
pinch of Montaigne and Thoreau for contrarian good measure. Assiduous
readers of contemporary periodicals may feel they're happening upon
familiar material; indeed, I discovered I'd already read two-thirds
of Compass Points. Wrenching chunks of a book into the straitjacket
of a magazine article often diminishes both the excerpt and the
larger work. But Hoagland's sentences are those rare kind that are
so self-contained, yet so joyous in their rhythms and surprising
in their twists, that I followed them a second time with an eagerness
and pleasure I rarely muster on initial contact with other writers'
The book opens with a long, moving piece on the defining condition
of Hoagland's late life, a creeping blindness that slowly pulled
the shade on his windows to the world. While the experience frightened
him terribly, he managed to hang on to the little moments of visual
joy still left to him:
Every day broad daylight managed to kill whatever
vision I had left to the opacity of tapioca; but after sunset I'd
go outside again, almost tiptoeing with a tremulous joy, and sit
down in the grass, my pupils expanding as dusk fell and as my cataracts
lost their blocking power. As if on stolen time, I gazed at the
rolling landscape, the profile of the lines of trees, smelling the
joe-pye weed, fragrant like vanilla, seeing clouds like lumbering
buffaloes pricked by quick winds in the sky.
The approaching total blindness seemed horrifying, his mind often
kept company only by "deranged ... talk-radio or TV 'hosts' whose
egos were like suppurating boils that never popped. Week by week,
their garish pleas for applause and rancid false laughter, their
acrid logic, their make-nice appeals to the ecumenical piety of
chuckling greed ... festered like a pus that never seeps away and
heals." When high-tech surgery restores his sight, we can't help
but feel a lift: Good things do happen to good people, at least
some of the time.