Sixty years have passed since the publication of Edward Hoagland’s first book, Cat Man, a novel that drew on his experience working with big cats in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Since then, he has written more than twenty books of fiction and nonfiction, essay collections and volumes of travel writing. The range of subjects he has addressed, with elegance and insight, is impressively wide: friendship and solitude, love and divorce, jury duty and circus clowns, literary fame and political assassination, the pain of personal humiliation, the challenges (and unexpected advantages) of having a severe stutter, the future of our cities, the threat of ecological disaster.
Hoagland’s novels take place in settings as disparate as a seedy hotel on the edge of Harlem (The Peacock’s Tail, 1965), boxing gyms in Manhattan and Boston (The Circle Home, 1960), and a humanitarian aid station in southern Sudan (Children Are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse, 2013). He has reported from Alaska, Africa, Antarctica, and British Columbia, from the Deep South to the Far North, and has regularly returned to Manhattan and New England to describe how life there has changed over time.
Best known as a nature writer, he has greatly increased our knowledge of wilderness landscapes, and his fortunate readers have learned from him about wolves and bears, dogs, leopards, and mountain lions. In “The Courage of Turtles,” one of his most celebrated essays, Hoagland persuaded us that turtles have personalities and possibly even souls—without sentimentalizing or so anthropomorphizing them that they were no longer recognizable as the creatures we swerve to avoid on country roads or watch lumbering lugubriously around our children’s terrariums:
Baby turtles in a turtle bowl are a puzzle in geometrics. They’re as decorative as pansy petals, but they are also self-directed building blocks, propping themselves on one another in different arrangements, before upending the tower. The timid individuals turn fearless, or vice versa. If one gets a bit arrogant he will push the others off the rock and afterwards climb down into the water and cling to the back of one of those he has bullied, tickling him with his hind feet until he bucks like a bronco…. He sinks and rises, with an infinity of levels to choose from; or, elongating himself, he climbs onto the land again to perambulate, sits boxed in his box, and finally slides back into the water, submerging into dreams.
Among the striking aspects of Hoagland’s work have been the honesty and fearlessness with which he has discussed his own heartbreaks, mistakes, and failures, the clarity with which he has argued his nuanced, complex opinions, and the apparent effortlessness with which he has portrayed creatures and habitats for which a less observant writer or less gifted stylist might have trouble finding language. (Philip Roth called him “America’s most intelligent and wide-ranging essayist-naturalist.”) He has traveled so intrepidly, in so many wild and inhospitable terrains, that we are all the more surprised to find that Press, the main character of his new novel, In the Country of the Blind, is anxious and ill at ease nearly everywhere he goes: at home on the edge of a swamp in northern Vermont; at Ten Mile Farm, a nearby hippie commune; at the country club in the Connecticut suburb where he once lived and to which he pays a brief, unsatisfying visit to his ex-wife and their two children.
What makes Press feel so isolated and vulnerable is the fact that he is going blind. At forty-six, the former stockbroker must depend on the goodwill of his Vermont neighbors and the people he hires to help him. Alone at night, he hears ominous sounds outside his windows—a “faint shout,” the “rasp of an ATV vehicle”—and fears that smugglers running drugs and illegal immigrants across the Canadian border are hiding contraband nearby. When the police discover that one of Press’s outbuildings is being used as “a stash for weed,” he begins to suspect that the people he’s come to trust are involved—or that they know who the culprits are, and have reported them to the authorities.
Early in the novel, which takes place during the Nixon administration, we meet Press’s neighbors. In one direction lives Karl Swinnerton, a woodsman and the town fire chief, and his wife Dorothy, who writes essays for the local paper. In the other direction are Darryl and Avis Clark, devout evangelicals who run a dairy farm. “One of the pleasures of his new existence…was sharing a meal one day with people who didn’t believe in Evolution and the next with people who did.”
“Fatalism about his fading eyesight,” Press observes, “produced more generosity than bitterness,” and there’s something very appealing about his lack of snobbishness, about the open-heartedness that transcends class and cultural differences, and the fact that he has come to value decency and resilience more highly than sophistication and status. At Merrill Lynch, he’d chatted with clients about their trips to the Acropolis and the Uffizi, but now he is content to gossip about the hippies and hear a play-by-play account of a cattle auction he attends.
He is especially grateful to the two women who care for him: his housekeeper, a tough-talking old woman named Melba who regales him with stories of her adventures out west and her lifelong attraction to bad-boy rodeo cowboys, and especially Carol, a hippie from the Ten Mile Farm commune. Carol has two children, makes art out of stained glass, and has ministered to the poor in Lower Manhattan under the auspices of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement. After a chance meeting in the woods, Carol drives Press home, then returns to cook for him. She takes a hot bath in his tub and initiates a love affair that is a welcome distraction from Press’s fears about his disability and his future.
According to his publisher, Hoagland, now in his early eighties, is—like his hero—going blind. Something similar happened to him in late middle age, a difficult time he chronicled in an essay—one of his most beautiful—with the same title as the new novel. In the essay, which also describes how his sight was restored by a risky operation, he writes with characteristic exactitude about how he gave up driving because bicycles had begun to look like mailboxes, dogs like cardboard boxes, and pedestrians like poplar trees:
The platinum light in the early morning, as a gentle rain fell, nearly broke my heart…. I walked through the timothy and orchard grass, the tangles and vetch, the fireweed stalks and raspberry canes, each registering as friends I might not see again, with what was left of my eyesight standing on tiptoe—or dimly perceiving each through my binoculars. Hearing a toad sing, I would visualize him, and a chorus of tree frogs in an alder thicket rejoicing in the rain. My dog I saw because he came to my hands, and birches became my favorite trees…because their white bark showed up glowingly.
In the essay, Hoagland describes the reassuring comforts of daily routine and his efforts to compensate for his handicap:
Walking to town, I focused upon my lungs and legs, and itemized the feel of the weather, or the menu of colors my eyes still took in, after shadings were a blur. I listened to Dickens and Shakespeare on tape, experimented with radio snacking from Canadien Français.
So too Press adjusts to his losses, “dodging the bullet of loneliness” by talking to himself, listening to the birds and “to the regulars morning and evening on the radio, including French DJs emanating from Quebec.” By memorizing the curves and pitch of the road, he can ride his bike.
But Press is less eloquent than his creator, less capable of thinking as critically or as lyrically, though at his best moments he does sound a little like an Edward Hoagland essay: “Blindness was like meditating at a Quaker meeting, Press decided. Other people might be present but your awareness of them was limited.” We know the name of Press’s disease (“It’s called serpiginous choroiditis and is episodic; it scars your retinas…. I’m legally blind times two. 20/400”) and its symptoms: “white spots checker…his vision,” and he compares his eyes to “Swiss cheese…. I see through the holes.”
Often we are confused about the extent of his limitations. He can’t read the labels of canned goods “to separate the peaches from the corn, the pears, the peas,” but when he visits his ex-wife in his former home, he observes that “the layout had been changed a bit, with furniture maybe brought by his replacement.” At Ten Mile Farm, “adding a Paleolithic note to the scene were the women who had come directly from gardening and thus were still bare-breasted, a facet Press was able to perceive,” but at an antiques auction, he must feel the furniture in order to know what is on sale, and he can’t see Carol well enough to ascertain if she is a bona fide hippie: “He knew the term, of course, but his sight had dimmed before they became omnipresent, at least in the quarters he’d frequented.” Even if we assume that Press’s vision is worse on some days and in some lights, we must perpetually recalibrate our notions of how much his visual world has been diminished.
Unlike Hoagland, Press has only a cursory knowledge of nature, much of it learned from his neighbor: “Some crows were mobbing an owl in the swamp from the sounds, as Karl had taught Press.” Unfortunately the crisp lucidity of Hoagland’s style has, in many instances, been replaced by rambling sentences that, we assume, reflect the more muddled operation of Press’s intelligence:
Another hound would trail whichever furbearer he was after at that moment in the snow—leaving a raccoon’s track, for instance, if he pointed at a fox’s prints they crossed, which was more valuable, but then leaving the fox’s, perhaps, if Karl saw a bobcat’s, whose skin would fetch still more cash: as much as sixty dollars.
One can open a volume of Hoagland’s essays and search in vain for a cliché, but they flood, unchecked, into Press’s mind. At his job, he’d been “a square peg in a round hole.” The Clarks are “a different kettle of fish.” When Press has lunch with his neighbors, “although loose lips sink ships, over the rhubarb sauce, he couldn’t keep his buttoned.”
No one would dream of suggesting that a fictional character must be anywhere near as knowledgeable, wise, or articulate as the writer who created him; if that were required, there would be no Flem Snopes, no Emma Bovary, no David Kepesh, no Clarissa Dalloway. But when a book is written, as this one is, from a close third-person point of view, with only the rare suggestion of an omniscient voice, we spend the narrative almost entirely inside the central character’s consciousness. He becomes our guide to the geography that the author is mapping. Our interest in a naturalistic novel depends, at least in part, on the depth of characterization and—more importantly—on language, on the words and sentences used to express observations and reflections, and to make a fictive world come alive on the page.
From the start, Press has our sympathy, in part because of his plight, his patience, his courage, his willingness to listen to the people around him, and his admirable reluctance to judge them. But is he interesting? Not always, not enough. He can seem opaque in ways that blunt rather than pique our curiosity. Too often we may have trouble understanding why he is doing something, or how he feels about it. People can be mysteries to themselves, and there are literary classics (among them, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier) in which the narrator is unaware of realities that are all too obvious to the reader. But obtuseness and a mind that gravitates toward the cliché become problems in a novel in which we have been led to believe that the main character is reasonably perceptive and self-aware.
In an improbable and troubling scene, Press, visiting the commune with Carol, is invited to inseminate a woman who wants to have a child and who has a decidedly no-nonsense attitude toward procreation and paternity. “This lady wants a baby without the hassle,” Carol explains. With no idea where he’s going, Press is helped up a ladder to a hayloft, where—while the other women sit around, talking and urging him on—he is encouraged to have sex with a stranger he cannot see. On a subsequent visit, he again climbs the ladder:
At the top, once more strong female fingers helped him crawl safely into her loft, then onto the pile of blankets, futons, and quilts. “Mama wants a second helping,” she said, as Carol sat on the floor nearby, not playing an active role this time in disrobing him, just assuring Press that her kids were on a sleepover and they could stay all night. It was growing dark, and in surrounding apartments mildly revelrous.
She—the unnamed lady—simply drew his hands to the Paleolithic places men have always grown tumid from feeling, like the outward cradle of the hips within which a fetus will reside and her breasts that will nourish it, once born.
We understand that, for Press, “passivity was a novel pleasure,” but we may wonder if this newly enjoyable lassitude has somehow inactivated his imagination and his common sense. Does he not realize that this event (repeated twice, with enough time in between to consider the implications) might have consequences? Has he no interest in, or concern for, the child who is meant to result from his frolic in the hayloft?
One can’t help noticing how frequently the mere mention of sex derails the novel and introduces a note of improbability. Puzzled by Carol’s refusal to have intercourse with him, Press (apparently without much evidence) at last arrives at an explanation:
“So,” Press teased Carol challengingly when she did show up and hugged him and let him fondle her. “I think I’ve figured out why you won’t make piggies with me. Do you have herpes?”
She pushed him away, pausing, though not angry. “That’s what your wife and you called it, isn’t it, ‘piggies’? How clunky, how charming! Yes, you get a blue ribbon. How smart a boy you are.”
Is there not a condom to be had in all of northern Vermont? Later, we may ask ourselves: Would a mother of two, however free-spirited, give a man a friend’s child’s doll and suggest that he “finger” it in her absence? “She kissed him to lighten the import of leaving him with Barbie’s boobs.”
These are minor details in a book that is primarily about blindness, adaptation, and fortitude, and only tangentially about sex. And there’s something so almost childlike about Press’s libidinousness that the reader is inclined to overlook the fact that naked women twice bring the word “paleolithic” to his mind. Yet every distraction of this sort, every improbable action or line of dialogue undermines the reader’s expectation that the naturalistic novel’s invented world will offer a plausible version of the real one. We know that people behave in unexpected, even shocking ways, but in a novel—unlike life—we must be convinced that such a thing could happen.
We’re mystified near the end of In the Country of the Blind when Press, hardly the most relaxed or trusting fellow, agrees to go on an extended road trip and even finds a kind of peace with an alarming and possibly criminal drifter named Chuck at the wheel. Press
played it as it lay, enjoying the randomness of someone else’s stop and go. Think of it as an amusement park, he told himself, where he was riding all the rides, and listening to yet another next-stool yak-yak at the candied-apple counter, the tapestry of America, while Chuck attended to business.
Readers may find it difficult to fathom why a writer with Hoagland’s brilliant record and immense talent would choose to submerge himself in the consciousness of a character so much less interesting than he is. The novel makes one long to read the illuminating, ruminative essay that he might write about a conventional stockbroker, alone, losing his sight, dependent on the mercies of his rural neighbors and a freethinking tribe of Nixon-era hippies.