Hoagland, widely celebrated as a travel writer, essayist and environmentalist, serves up a retrospective of his short fiction.
He hasn't published many stories in his 81 years, but Hoagland is a master of the form. The tales, mostly from the 1960s, are decidedly downbeat. Self-delusion plagues its drifters, carnival attractions and assorted nowhere men like a contagion, and the women don't come off especially well, either. In "The Final Fate of the Alligators" (1969), seaman Arnie Bush finds sexual contentment and a sense of personal "gravity" in his four years with an oft-married laundromat owner in Galveston, Texas. But when her controlling nature emerges, he leaves her and their young daughter and resettles in a dumpy New York apartment—with a bathtub-dwelling alligator. In the title story, from 2005, Jake Thibodeau, a New England Wall of Death motorcyclist on the down side of his career, tests his mortality under the worst conditions—before lowlifes who couldn't care less about his fate. In "The Last Irish Fighter" (1960), a faded boxer named Kelly, surrounded by ropes "wrapped in cloth a funeral black," is stunned and impressed by an opponent with strange moves and wicked sucker punches. Other stories are set in a hospital morgue, a rodeo and on the frontier, where no better fortunes await. For all its bleakness, though, the collection is lifted by the author's perfectly tempered irony and exquisite descriptions. Hoagland is from the old school: He makes every word count, but not in the minimalist manner of many younger writers. These stories don't feel confined, opening up worlds we may never before have glimpsed.
A necessary gathering of stories by a writer Saul Bellow rightly called one of the best of his generation.