THE TUGMAN'S PASSAGE by Edward Hoagland


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Lesser Hoagland: a collection of 13 very assorted essays--plus two dozen or so of his Borland-esque, seasonal mini-contributions to the New York Times editorial page (originally printed anonymously). The only substantial, unqualified success here is the title piece: Hoagland at his low-key reporter's best, on a subject he cares about--spending time with New York Harbor's well-paid tugboatmen, watching them perform ""a species of jujitsu with the weighty barges,"" and getting a feel for their irregular shuttling between rough Red Hook piers and placid suburban lawns. (A rare, welcome plus: a map of the harbor area.) Also fine, though obviously dated and a trifle preachy, are two vivid 1976 socio-political travelogues for Harper's: on Cairo, where ""there is a mosque for every four buses,"" where the ethos is ""the thronging, the feeling of all humanity precariously rushing by,"" where Hoagland's looping focus slides from a street butcher to foreign Arabists to Sadat; on East Africa--quickly skipping from Kenya to Tanzania (""the newspapers read like North Korea's"") to Zanzibar, emphasizing the hungry people instead of the scenic geography. And those snippets for the Times offer fine cameos of nature-writing, along with a few agreeable sidetrips into phone-company rudeness and (a Hoagland standby) the circus. Elsewhere, however, the slightness is of a different, less disarming sort. Brief columns for The New York Times Book Review--on the personal-essay form, on great travel-books of the past, on the professional writer's loss of innocence--verge on the platitudinous; likewise a wry musing on the real/legendary Johnny Appleseed (neglected by historians, who prefer ""braggarts and killers""). And, as in previous collections, Hoagland is least persuasive when least reportorial: sturdy reflections on country/city living drift into tenuous parallels with sexuality (""the recent fantasies I've had depict me lying on my side on the bed with my hands tied behind my back and fastened to a ring around the base of my scrotum""); and a disquisition on ""Women and Men"" runs through the usual topics--roles, homosexuality, androgyny, abortion--without providing any fresh illuminations. The spottiest; then, of the several collections--but the tugmen and the wildlife are as engaging as ever.

Pub Date: March 12th, 1982
Publisher: Random House