ESSAYS
Wandering Through Life’s Wilderness

Edward Hoagland
Sex and the River Styx
(Chelsea Green, 2011)

How many people can correctly identify the flora and fauna they encounter in everyday life? Fearfully few. Edward Hoagland can do that, and more. As a nature and travel writer who has penned more than 20 books and written for Harper’s and Esquire, among others, he revels in the glory of nature. Through his observation of the wild, Hoagland has gained keen insight into human life, and Sex and the River Styx, his collection of 13 essays, showcases this.

The essays in the book are discursive, covering the writer’s travels through developing countries like Uganda, his experience working in the circus as a youth, and ruminations on sex and aging. The prose is poetic and the humor wry. Hoagland, 78, has seen it all and survived to laugh at life. In one of his essays, he discusses love and marriage:

My mother had a yardstick for marriage in the era when divorce was unthinkable, which still seems pretty apt: “Would you let her use your toothbrush?” Marriage is for the morning after, between the poles of friendship and infatuation, where burps and farts won’t derail it.

Outside of playful jabs at human foibles, there is a sense of wonderment in the writing—at the untamed wild, at the ability of humans to survive despite themselves—undercut by Hoagland’s weary reproof of where we are heading as a species.

A common theme in the essay collection is our generation’s estrangement from nature. As he puts it, “Pets in containers, or loose as catty companions, or doggy slaves, can hardly fill in for the immensity of wind, stars, and trees.” There is a sense of wistful nostalgia as well. Not that Hoagland believes that the past is paradise, but at least it was more coherent. “We fly the flag a lot now, yet what is the social compact? We’ve got gluts of information but are dizzy for a lack of norm.”

Collectively, the essays form a work of introspection. What have I accomplished in life? What is a man’s place in society and nature? Hoagland aims those questions at himself and does not flinch from answering, even when it hurts. Readers may find themselves wondering how they’d answer the same questions by the end of the book.

Contributor

Winston Len

Previous publications in the Brooklyn Rail June 2011 issue: Review of Falling Sideways by Thomas Kennedy

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