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An essayist with a discriminating eye makes a fine art of being a spectator


There are participants and there are spectators—jocks and fans, in the jargon of sports. And there is Edward Hoagland, who is really neither, but whose book, The Courage of Turtles (Random House, $5.95), proves him to be both. In these essays, Hoagland is either the eager participant or the curious, avid fan—studying and analyzing, cheering boisterously, philosophizing. He is not "one of those professional eye witnesses who is willing to watch anything just on the grounds that it is happening."

Hoagland's past books include a novel about boxing, The Circle Home, and a remarkable evocation of wilderness life in his journal. Notes from the Century Before. His essays in The Courage of Turtles range from spores to county fairs, and he discourses on such subjects as being in love, bear hunting, rodeos, composition and tugboats. Whatever it is, he watches and records in precise detail. Consider: a tugboat ride where "the spray plumed like cream at our bow, and the water was like crinkled tinfoil." Two circus performers "who look like the President of Mexico photographed twice." Hoagland is a spectator who watches so closely that he joins in the spectacle.

And he enjoys almost everything. Writers, Hoagland suggests, "can be categorized by many criteria, one of which is whether they prefer subject matter that they rejoice in or subject matter they deplore and wish to savage with ironies." Hoagland is a rejoicer. He comes to the rodeo "eager for the round-and-round monotony of the arena." He goes to the Manhattan waterfront "expressly to watch the smoke from the Con Ed stacks jump, flatten, and jump again." He watches billiard balls and concludes that they "revel in the zigzag sociability of the table."

Hoagland sees it all with a clear eye, passionately devours it and makes modest conclusions based on what he observes, not what he claims to know. About a boxing match he comments that "though we do tire of the delirium in the streets, we are only tiring of disorder. Make it concise, put ropes or white lines around it, and we will go." He examines the work of a taxidermist and notes that it "resembles an undertaker's, with the congenial difference that he needn't hurry or pretend to be sad."

He offers the reader 15 essays—small works produced by a man who is curious, attentive, enthusiastic and honest. He makes us take on the role of participating spectator. For himself he leans to a different role from years gone by; making lemonade and reclining "on the screen porch listening to Mel Allen broadcast the Yankee game."