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COMPASS POINTS by Edward Hoagland Kirkus Star

COMPASS POINTS

How I Lived

By Edward Hoagland

Pub Date: Feb. 6th, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-40246-2
Publisher: Pantheon

Hoagland’s (Tigers and Ice, 1999, etc.) autobiography reads much like his essays—seemingly meandering, but masterfully grounded in an independent sensibility and enlivened by a joie de vivre.

Individual chapters can be read as separate essays (and, in fact, some appeared in that format previously, in such magazines as Harper’s, Esquire, the New Yorker, and Granta). While inevitably featuring overlapping material, these also allow the author to examine events of his life like objects held up to a prism. Following eye surgery that restored his vision, he seems intent now, as a senior citizen, both to plunge into life all at once (in journeys to India and Antarctica, for example) and to view his past with mellow acceptance. A New York City native, Hoagland grew up in suburban Connecticut and rebelled early on against the buttoned-up world of his parents. Compensating for a lifelong stammer, he learned to modulate his prose effortlessly from minute naturalistic observation to broader conclusions that range from eloquent to wry (e.g., “the essay’s appeal includes an accommodation to defeat by means of the phoenix of humor, plus intelligence and postgame analysis”). He fondly recalls not only Midwestern ancestors, but also Harvard instructors Archibald MacLeish and John Berryman (who taught him, respectively, the useful aspects of sanity and insanity in literature). Not all of this memoir is admirable—his description of second wife Marion Magid’s right-wing sympathies as an editor at the neoconservative periodical Commentary, for example, sounds like a justification for his adultery. What shines from these pages, however, is a pantheistic, sensual delight in existence (after eye surgery, he returns to Vermont to see “the juncos wintering in the dogwoods, the hungry possum nibbling seeds under the birdfeeder, the startling glory of our skunk’s white web of fur in a shaft of faint moonlight”) that finds expression in vivid prose.

A rich accounting of time well spent.