In 1983, one of America's foremost literary stylists came to Alaska for a year, drawn by the state's eclectic mix of subjects and characters, its "Lewis and Clark past," and by his own affair with a young itinerant public health nurse met in Fairbanks at a writers' conference.
Now, pushing 80, Edward Hoagland has emptied his longhand notes from nearly 30 years ago into a new book, "Alaskan Travels."
The book is a rambling tour of a once-wild land and its sad-sack populace, some of it timeless and some anchored in the late oil boom period of the early 1980s (amid the social wrack of the middle Kuskokwim, say, or the new millionaire big shots of Anchorage), rendered in muscular prose and uplifted by the boisterous enthusiasm of a writer reconnecting at times with his own younger voyages of discovery.
Widely anthologized (and pigeonholed) as a nature writer, Hoagland has always had wide-ranging interests. His 20 previous books and collections of essays have established his reputation as a writer's writer; John Updike called him the best essayist of their generation. His early nonfiction work set in British Columbia, "Notes from the Century Before," is a classic of northern literature. One measure of his stature was that Hoagland was chosen to review, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, two other Alaska classics at the time of their publication: "Coming Into the Country," by John McPhee (a masterpiece, Hoagland judged, from a writer who sometimes "over-admired" his subjects), and "Arctic Dreams," by Barry Lopez, this year's keynote speaker at the upcoming Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference (a passionate rhapsody, Hoagland said, but not angry enough).
Hoagland has written about his own year in Alaska once before, in a fine essay about a river trip out of Fort Yukon called "Up the Black to Chalkyitsik." That account covered many of the same themes as the present book, though somehow more fondly and ardently.
This latest work seems an add-on to a notable career -- too braided and meandering, probably, to merit the best-Hoagland-book-ever praise in an admiring foreword by novelist Howard Frank Mosher. The new book grabs at its main ideas in passing, impressionistically and sometimes repetitively. (While we should be grateful for anything delivered between hard covers these days, the first edition is also saddled with a hastily borrowed Alaska map of mysterious shaded areas and nonsensical transportation lines.)
Hoagland has written that an essayist must be both abrasive and gentle, single-minded and fair. But some Alaska readers may be put off by the writer's sour assessment of so many people trying to escape disappointment and broken marriages -- more Joe McGinniss than John McPhee. (Hoagland once wrote of the two visiting authors, whose Alaska best-sellers brought national attention in the late 1970s, that McPhee was felt by his interview subjects to be sterner in person than on paper while McGinniss was the other way around.)
Still, the whole thing churns along energetically, its hard-to-parse prose remarkable for a vivid vocabulary, dependent clauses strung together by commas, subjects turning in mid-sentence and abrupt stops. Hoagland was working on a novel at the time, to be set in the early American West, and as he jotted down impressions of many rivers -- among them "the lovely Susitna, which purled at the same time as it rushed muscularly toward Cook Inlet and the Pacific Ocean" -- he could have been describing his own writing style.
The author is at his most exuberant in a late chapter about riding a tugboat along the Tanana and Yukon rivers. He is fascinated by the boating characters and how they wend their way along invisible channels, relishing his own Mark Twain moment. The mythic Yukon, he notes without regret, appeared wilder than it had in a hundred years. He also perks up whenever he encounters Bush old-timers, recounting the arc of their hopeful lives.
A pleasant surprise in this book is Hoagland's cameo portraits of self-made millionaires of booming early-1980s Anchorage: Connie Yoshimura, Bob Penney, Gary Archer, Larry Carr and the Greek mall developer he particularly admired, Pete Zamarello. Cable TV magnate Bob Uchitel tells him, in a nice echo of New York's catch-phrase of self-praise: "If you can't make it in Alaska, you can't make it anywhere."
At an oil lease sale presided over by James Watt aide Vern Wiggins, with his "hunterly squint" and "Boss Hogg physiognomy," Hoagland admits his conservationist leanings but -- following his sure essayist's instinct -- veers off to recall his own privileged East Coast childhood, thanks to his father's job as an Exxon lawyer, and ponder his prep-school comfort in the presence of these "robust" entrepreneurs and oilmen. In a strange scene, he describes sobbing uncontrollably during Gov. Bill Egan's funeral about the death of his own father, while mourners wondered at his connection to the Alaska Democrat.
More than his descriptions of still-familiar Bush rhythms and ironies, these urban portraits touchingly bring back a historic moment for the 49th state. So do his descriptions of rough riff-raff getting on his plane in Seattle, a moment of transition less striking today in fuselages filled with one-way cruise passengers and frequent-flying Alaskans returning to suburban Anchorage-area homes.
A feminist romance of sorts stitches together the parts of "Alaskan Travels." Hoagland's girlfriend, Linda, a plucky young public health nurse charged with supervising the state's rural cases of tuberculosis, gave the writer access to the villages as she flew around collecting specimens of sputum. Her more knowledgeable point of view seems to direct invisibly the book's sympathies and aversions: the kvetching of young do-gooders in social services, the poisonous rural swirl of alcohol, abuse and suicide (in this time just before "People in Peril" and a revival of village self-governance), the admirable women, Native and white, who seemed to be doing most of the real work, and the macho, "self-dramatizing" males.
Despite the grandeur of the wild land, Hoagland's Alaska does not seem a place where anyone might find happiness. Hoagland says he himself was happy to flee a bad Manhattan marriage to live in Anchorage with Linda, but tells us from the start that the differences in their ages and career trajectories would eventually pull them apart. When he writes near the end of watching "a departing young man ceremoniously deposit his rain gear and rubber boots in a trash can before boarding his flight Outside from this gigantic cul-de-sac," it may occur to the reader that Hoagland is also talking about the sad dead-end to his long-ago year in Alaska.
Former Anchorage Daily News reporter Tom Kizzia's rural travels for the paper in the mid-1980s were the subject of his first book, "The Wake of the Unseen Object." He is now writing a book about the Pilgrim Family and the town of McCarthy for Broadway Books/Random House.