Hoagland faces mortality
If the title of Edward Hoagland’s new essay collection Sex and the River Styx, and the image on the jacket (a detail from a painting by Joachim Patenier, shown above), were not enough, the titles of many of the essays would make it clear that the author is contemplating his mortality: “Last Call,” “A Last Look Around,” “Curtain Calls,” “Endgame,” “A Country for Old Men.”
These are difficult essays, knottily written, returning repeatedly to observations that Hoagland regards as touchstones: Orwell’s comment that after fifty every man has the face he deserves, Aldo Leopold’s belief that a naturalist “lives alone in a world of wounds,” and the smile Hoagland noticed on the faces of many the bodies he handled as a soldier in an army morgue.
Hoagland believes that heaven is here on earth, and he tells us he has no desire to witness the flooding of Dhaka or the end of the whales and elephants. Without welcoming death, he looks forward to returning to the planet and its continuing cycle of life. From “Curtain Calls”:
If heaven is on earth, it’s hardly contradictory to love sunshine chevroned with tree shadows in the woods, plus the low-slung moss, a tiger-colored butterfly, the Tiffany glitter of a spider’s web after a gust of rain, and the yellow-spotted salamander emerging from under the nearest log—yet feel content to die.
Each of these essays is a carefully crafted exploration of some of the most essential questions a person can face—but if you’re like me, you may find it best to take some time between them.