Sex and the River Styx
by Edward Hoagland
Reviewed by Steve Yarbrough
"Believing in life," Edward Hoagland writes in "Curtain Calls," one of the essays in his splendid new collection, "I believe in death as well, and at seventy-six look forward to my immersion in the other plane of the seesaw also. Without wishing to hasten it, in other words, I don't dread the event. The politics will be less rancid, my dentistry at an end, and the TV off." Reading this essay and several of the others in Sex and the River Styx, I found myself marveling at Hoagland's notes of acceptance.
As these essays will prove to those who don't know the work of this extraordinary writer, Hoagland has lived life to the hilt. Though born in New York City, he spent most of his early years in rural Connecticut, where his family kept a dozen hens and he learned to feel "like part of the flock." In the beautiful opening essay "Small Silences," he describes wandering through the woods nearby, taking note of tall pines "with their thousand jewely shards of light as you looked up on a sunny day" and the "white birches whose curling strips of bark you could write on not just with a pencil but with your fingernail if you had to."
As a young man he worked as a cage boy for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey, an experience he alludes to in "Circus Music," and it was during this time that he came to love animals such as elephants and orangutans that many of us have never gotten within 50 feet of. Later, he traveled the globe writing about exotic locations for such publications as National Geographic, Harper's and Esquire. He revisits some of those places here, in essays that take him to Africa and Asia.
Hoagland has seen more of the world than all but a few of us, and if much of it has evoked wonder in his heart, a lot of it has also bothered him. "Going through airport security," he writes, "I've sometimes wondered what would happen if thoughts could be screened." He admits to being ashamed that he's "never been arrested on a matter of conscience." He finds the indignities suffered by the elderly who need medical treatment outrageous; he thinks this country is guilty of mistreating Arab Americans; he decries "the din of innovation." He tells us that he doesn't "want to live in a world drained of elephants and sharks and whales, where my grief over how we've treated captive apes is dwarfed when the last wild carcasses are concealed under the loads on log trucks, to be cooked as bushmeat in Kinshasa's slums."
Some of the most moving reflections come when the author ruminates on what, for many, would constitute personal failures: the demise of his marriages, an abortion about which he is "fitfully wistful," his penchant for "selfish waffling." He has the courage to wonder in print whether he stayed in one marriage as long as he did "entirely for the sake of our child or for my wife's health insurance." Yet, he tells us, he is "not one who regrets defaulting on the chances of his youth now that he gets quite breathless on an upgrade."
I read much of this new collection while lounging on beaches on the island of Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico, and in retrospect that seems peculiarly appropriate. Those beaches were the most pristine I've ever seen, and they were often deserted or almost deserted -- a far cry from the ones I used to frequent when I lived in California, where you often couldn't find an unoccupied spot large enough to spread your towel. San Juan is no more than 40 miles away, though, and its towering resorts stand shoulder to shoulder. The proximity of opposites -- an empty beach, a bustling resort -- seems to me the perfect representation of what Hoagland, whose gift for metaphor never fails him in these thoughtful pieces, calls "the riddles of light and darkness."