Sixteen years ago, The Circle Home, a realistic, richly detailed novel about a boxer near the end of his rope, was published. As is so often the case with novels by relatively unknown writers, it was only briefly in print before vanishing. Efforts to get it into paperback failed, notwithstanding its indisputable quality and the seeming sales appeal of its subject. As a consequence it has become yet another entry on the long list of distinguished but neglected American fiction; that the company is distinguished is small consolation to an author whose work goes unread.
And here is the puzzling part: the author of The Circle Home is now quite well known and admired. But he is known not as the novelist he started out to be but as the essayist-journalist he has become. He appears regularly in leading journals and magazines, this one included, and his reputation is both enviable and deserved. One senses, however, that he'd give up a bunch of that reputation for a bit more success as a novelist. He writes:
"It has come to seem ironic that 'novel' means new; and there is a clarity to the situation in journalism appropriate to a thriving concern.... But despite the disarray in fiction enough glory attaches to fighting on regardless, like John Henry, with eclipsed tools, that novelists-turned-journalists sometimes look back to the old problematic, lonely drudgery of novel-writing as movie actors do to the stage: maybe that was where the action was."
The writer is Edward Hoagland, and the passage is from "Where the Action Is," one of nineteen essays collected in Red Wolves & Black Bears ( Random House, $8.95). The range of Hoagland's interest is impressive, but no matter what his subject he is always master of the essay form. He writes about the form perceptively:
"The essay is a vulnerable form. Rooted in middle-class civility, it presupposes not only that the essayist himself be demonstrably sane, but that his readers also operate upon a set of widely held assumptions," he says. Fiction can be hallucinatory if it wishes, and journalism impassive, and so each continues through thick and thin, but essays presuppose a certain standard of education in the reader, a world ruled by some sort of order—where government is constitutional, or at least monarchical, where sex hasn't wandered too far from its home base and religion isn't so smothering that nobody knows where babies come from—where people seek not fragmentation but a common bond."
Hoagland himself is very much a seeker of common bonds, and the place where he does much of his looking is nature. The finest essays in the collection are those in which he examines the present circumstances of the black bears of Minnesota and the red wolves of Texas; and in the course of so doing he also examines himself—"the injured man who recognizes in the running wolf his wounds"—and the intricate ties between the world of animals and the world of man.
That the animals to which Hoagland is drawn are predators is not mere happenstance. He is possessed by a "sense that these adventurous predators, just as they eat all other animals, somehow contain all other animals," and his studies therefore acquire greater breadth and intensity.
Hoagland is not a "nature writer" in the received sense of the term; he is not given to waxing rhapsodic about the bunny trail or the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la. He writes far more often about the dark side of nature: about red wolves declining unknowingly toward extinction, about black bears struggling to free themselves from traps, about mountain lions patrolling their stark and lonely preserves, about the relentless cycle of eat or be eaten, kill or be killed.
What is remarkable is that Hoagland emerges from these studies neither cynical nor despairing. He finds a purpose in things, and he writes about it movingly:
"In the city and in the country there is a simple, underlying basis to life which we forget almost daily: that life is good. We forget because losing it or wife, children, health, friends is so awfully painful, and because life is hard, but we know from our own experience as well as our expectations that it can and ought to be good, and is even meant to be good. Any careful study of living things, whether wolves, bears or man, reminds one of the same direct truth; also of the clarity of the fact that evolution itself is obviously not some process of drowning beings clutching at straws and climbing from suffering and travail and virtual extinction to tenuous, momentary survival. Rather, evolution has been a matter of days well lived, chameleon strength, energy, zappy sex, sunshine stored up, inventiveness, competitiveness, and the whole fun of busy brain cells."