Edward Hoagland’s novels are marked by a keen eye for detail and a remarkable sense of place. They masterfully re-create unusual and often male-dominated environments, such as that of the circus or a boxing gym. Hisprotagonists tend to be isolated and lonely men, cut off through their own actions from those they love, men who generally have failed in their relationships with women. They are misfits, drifters, or dreamers, and the novels are often organized around their journeys, which may be merely flight, as in The Circle Home, or a clearly focused quest, as in Seven Rivers West. Because of this episodic structure, the books have a looseness that can approach the discursive at times, with flashbacks and digressions slowing the pace.
Many of these traits are already apparent in Hoagland’s first work, Cat Man. Drawn from his own experience working in a circus, Cat Man offers a graphic and harrowing portrayal of the life of the low-paid circus roustabouts, most of whom are derelicts or social outcasts. With his usual attraction to the eccentric and offbeat, Hoagland creates a human menagerie, a gallery of grotesques such as Dogwash, who will not touch water and cleans himself by wiping his whole body as hard as he can with paper. The novel presents a brutal world in which violence threatens constantly from both the workers and the animals. In fact, the book begins with an attempted murder and ends with a lion attack. It is also a world of rampant racism, a world in which the insane are to be laughed at and women sexually used and abandoned. As sordid and disturbing as all this is, Hoagland conveys it with remarkable vividness and attention to detail. Indeed, it is the searing portrayal of this world that is the novel’s great strength.
Fiddler, the main character, is a classic Hoagland protagonist. A youth who has been with the circus only seven weeks, he has been cut off from his family by his alcoholism and is very much an alienated man. Suffering from low self-esteem, he develops a foolhardy and almost obsessive fascination with the beauty and grace of his charges, the lions and tigers that it is his job, as a cat man, to tend. Hoagland’s own interest in and knowledge of animals is quite evident, as he endows the cats with as much individuality as the humans. Yet while Hoagland is clearly as fascinated as Fiddler with the animals, he never sentimentalizes them. The cats may be magnificent but they can also be uncaring and deadly, a lesson that Fiddler finally and fatally learns.
Also typical of Hoagland’s novels is the fact that Cat Man has a loose structure. Ostensibly, it is the story of one tragic day in Council Bluffs, but interspersed throughout the narrative are the events of other days in other places as Fiddler travels cross-country with the circus. Many of these episodes could stand on their own as quite good short stories, but inserted as they are within the novel’s main narrative they interrupt the momentum and slow the book’s flow.
The Circle Home
Hoagland’s second novel, The Circle Home, once again features a main character who is a lonely misfit. In this work, the protagonist is an over-the-hill boxer who rightly fears that he is doomed to become a derelict like his father. Again, too, he is a man who, through his own actions, is alienated from his family. Denny Kelly, however, is a less sympathetic figure than Fiddler. He has been so abusive toward his wife, Patsy, that she has repeatedly thrown him out. In fact, Denny seems incapable of committing himself to another person and simply takes advantage of women such as his wife or Margaret, an older woman whom he exploits for whatever material and sexual comforts she can supply.
Essentially, Denny is an immature child (indeed, he is strongly attracted to children), with all the selfishness and irresponsibility that that implies. Moreover, he avoids serious introspection whenever possible and actively fights any inclination toward thought by drowning himself in sensual pleasures. If Hoagland presents animals with considerable understanding in Cat Man, in The Circle Home he focuses on an individual who exists on little more than an animal level. Denny is incapable of expressing his feelings or organizing his life, and he responds simply to the need for...
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