Ted Hoagland publishes twenty-fourth book

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WEB hoagland devil covercopyright the Chronicle October 1, 2014

Reviewed by Natalie Hormilla

The Devil’s Tub, by Edward Hoagland. 240 pages. Hardcover. Published by Arcade Publishing. $24.95.

BARTON — “I’m ready to die,” said Edward Hoagland while seated comfortably in his longtime summer home in Barton. “I’d be totally content if I died tomorrow.”

Mr. Hoagland said this without a single degree of suicidal tendency. He means that he’s a writer who is content with his life’s work.

If he did die tomorrow, he’d miss the reviews, he said, with a laugh.

Mr. Hoagland turns 82 this December. This month, he publishes his twenty-fourth book, The Devil’s Tub. And he has a couple more books hitting the shelves in October: The paperback of his last novel, Children are Diamonds, and a reissue of Hoagland on Nature, this time called just On Nature, with one new essay added, in hardcover.

The Devil’s Tub is mostly old work in a new form, too. Ten fiction shorts comprise The Devil’s Tub, with just one of those stories not having been printed before. The final story, “I Have a Bid,” is from an unpublished novel based in Vermont.

“I call it my Vermont novel,” Mr. Hoagland said. “It’s still unfinished, after 20, 30 years.”

As that novel stands now, “I Have a Bid” has been dropped, and so may not appear in print again.

The Devil’s Tub is Mr. Hoagland’s first collection of fiction since The Final Fate of the Alligators, which came out in 1992.

Mr. Hoagland is best known for his essays, but this book proves he’s been writing fiction all along, too.

Close readers won’t find any underlying theme among the stories.

“There is no common thread except that they came from the same mind,” Mr. Hoagland said.

Why?” he said, when asked why he chose these stories and chapters for this collection. “It’s like, why do I publish a collection of my essays? They exist, so why not put them in a book?”

He wanted to publish his collected stories before his death, he said. So he decided to supervise the project rather than fret about it from the grave.

The far-flung range of subject matter reflects the author’s own life, in at least some ways.

The book’s third story, “The Colonel’s Power,” — first published in 1968 in New American Review — is about a young man working in a military hospital morgue and the events that lead him to betray his colonel.

“That was me,” Mr. Hoagland said.

He worked in a tuberculosis hospital in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, he said, after being drafted into the Army in 1955.

“In the Army, I had that same relationship with the colonel and the girlfriend, I just didn’t betray the colonel,” he said.

Instead, he let his imagination work on how the story would have gone if he had.

“When I got out of the Army, I thought it would be a good story.”

He doesn’t think the real colonel would have been as merciful as his fictitious self.

The eighth story, “Circus Dawn” — first published in 1955 in his first novel, Cat Man, which he sold before completing college — takes place among caged wild animals at what is presumably a circus, before it’s opened for the day.

Anyone who knows anything about Mr. Hoagland knows he toured with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a young man.

Even a less fantastical story, “The Witness” — first published in 1967 in Paris Review — is based on a real mother and child with whom Mr. Hoagland had a relationship while living in New York City.

That story is one that really demonstrates Mr. Hoagland’s eyes and ears for tiny details that design a story a reader can practically see.

“Often we whooped out to Tompkins Park where there were the modern, sinuous slides. Dusk was the ideal time. Tony crawled through the whale-shaped pipes, giving out screams, and went up to the other children. He always seemed infinitely dearer than them. I followed as if he were mine. He’d negotiate some over a toy, then turn to me and throw his ball, or hike onto a higher slide, wheeing down with the tentative relish of someone enjoying what he knows is likely to be his chief recreation for the day….

Ted Hoagland is pictured in his home, in the room in which he does most of his writing.  Photo by Natalie Hormilla
Ted Hoagland is pictured in his home, in the room in which he does most of his writing. Photo by Natalie Hormilla

“Tony had a luminousness, a resonance to him that was pitched very clear, a sing to his affections and words, perhaps just from growing up in a kind of state of emergency. After each bout with flu he seemed changed, a little bit older. He had awful dreams and toilet troubles and slept with his mother, but otherwise wasn’t more nervous than plenty of children, so that whatever effect all of this would have was left in the air. Though he cried during Ida’s lengthiest rages and spent many consecutive hours at the TV with that deadweight stare of a child, he remained promising.”

Mr. Hoagland’s personal life did not give birth to all the stories in The Devil’s Tub. Several are simply products of favorite subjects of his — like Vermont country fairs, as with the book’s opening story, “The Devil’s Tub”; and boxing, as with “The Last Irish Fighter.” The story “Cowboys” was inspired by William Faulkner’s “Spotted Horses,” Mr. Hoagland said.

Mr. Hoagland said he writes fiction at a rate of about ten words an hour. For essays, that rate is 20 words per hour.

“That’s one very obvious way to know I’m an essayist, primarily,” he said. “Because it takes so long to write novels. When you’re writing fiction, you’re inventing a world, so it takes longer.

“When you’re writing an essay, you’re describing a world invented by God.”

contact Natalie Hormilla at [email protected]

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