THESE ARE PALMY DAYS for lovers of fine writing who excuse themselves from reading fiction: Norman Mailer, John McPhee, Peter Matthiessen, and Joan Didion are regularly turning out reportorial or autobiographical prose of the highest order. With the simultaneous publication of a travel book and an anthology of his essays, Edward Hoagland has bid to be admitted to their company.
The travel book's title refers to Hoagland's sensation of "musical din" that reverberates throughout Africa. The featured country is the Sudan, "Africa's largest nation, one-fourth the size of Europe, one-third of the contiguous United States" -- and miserbly poor. More than 50 ethnic groups constitute the population of 17 million; civil war ended only in 1972; and the country abuts on such erratic states as Libya Ethiopia and Uganda. The Sudan is in such a jumble that "in the same village you may meet women veiled to the eyes and women naked to the waist."
What with the din and the sprawl and the muddle, one might have hoped for a tightly organized book as a counterweight. But in his author's note, Hoagland serves notice that he has not been strict with himself. "Plunge straight in . . .," he exhorts. "Life is a novel."
Reading African Calliope makes one wish life were a memo. Hoagland likes to being a chapter in medias res and leave it there. And the reader has to wait until the book's midpoint for a crucial, orienting chapter on Sudanese religion and politics. (In order to rule, "benign" dictator Gaafar M. Nimeiri must reconcile a dizzying variety of political vectors -- Moslem, Christian, Marxist, Mahdist and tribal. His most recent success was to coax into the government his staunchest political opponent, Sadiq al-Mahdi, great-grandson of the Mahdi who put to death General Gordon in Khartoum.)
Yet if one can cope with being lost in a country as large as the Sudan, traveling with Hoagland carries indisputable rewards. He is always an intense observer and frequently a brilliant interpreter. Where another writer might deal gingerly with the high incidence of deformity among the Sudanese, Hoagland dwells on the phenomenon to make a shrewd point about Sudanese culture. "A healing, miracle-working savior who would be locked in a cage within an hour if he appeared in Los Angeles or London could resurrect himself in Uba (a city in southern Sudan) and see the populace catch fire, believe the evidence of their eyes, and make the sand streets resound once again." And he captures admirably the paramount pleasure of African travel: "When we encountered large living animals, we hushed up, peering at them as if this were a moment of sweet communication outside the boundaries of our ordinary lives."
Animals, in fact, are a specialty of Hoagland's. E. B. White and Alan Moorehead have also written extraordinarily well about animals for the general reader, but neither has evinced Hoagland's ability to transform the meticulous findings of wildlife scientists into colorful, speculative reportage. Nor do they have Hoagland's range: he has written lovingly about animals on leashes, behind plows, in cages and atop crags. He attends to animals like a moralist consulting his conscience. Here, from the Reader , are some phrases he has composed to mimic nuances in the great cats' roars: lions "roaring like pianos being rolled on a hollow floor," lionesses "claxoning like engines," tigers uttering "air-blast roars," and mountain lions "roaring, grunting, growling with a racket like the noise of gears being stripped."
When Hoagland trains his field glasses on people, the behavioristic approach affords him some of his deftest insights. In an essay called "The Problem of the Golden Rule," he sums up his observations of the species homo urbanus . "Never have people dealt so briskly with strangers as now. Many of us have ceased to see strangers at all; our eyes simply don't register them except as verticals on the sidewalk, and when we must parley with them we find out quickly what they are asking from us, do it -- maybe -- and that's that."
But for all their fascination, one can experience a glut of animal stories and feral epiphanies. Critic Geoffrey Wolff, the compiler of the Reader , has erred in assembling so many beast pieces in one book: out of 21 essays, seven -- including some of the longest in the book -- are about animals, and several others display them prominently. Hoagland is too good a chronicler of his own kind to be represented in this limited way.
As for the prose, it is not of the same caliber as that of Didion, McPhee and company. At its best, Hoagland's style is punchy and playful. He has a flair for outlandish similes, which can be wonderfully evocative. Take this description of a canoe trip on Maine's Allagash River. "The river before us fell off, abrupt as the end of a table; all of a sudden it didn't appear to be there. Then, curling up like a hairdo, it fluffed around us, high at the prow, as we slid into the rapids themselves."
But Hoagland's sentence construction is persistently awkward. The opening of the essay "Marriage, Fame, Power, Success" is one of his lulus. "Marriage is taken to be a sign of health even if the marriage is bad just by the fact that the person can sustain its rigors for the sake of appearance and in order to be a good Joe while juggling the other tough aspects of living as well." This cataract of verbiage is a poor way to attract a reader, and the phrase, "even if the marriage is bad," is confusingly misplaced.
Hoagland also tends to hang too much on a sentence, as if he were putting up a literary clothesline. He doesn't know when to wrap up even some of his shorter sentences. Early in his writing career, he tells us, "I kept my manuscripts in the refrigerator as a precaution against fire and was a nut about safeguarding them." Everything in that sentence after "fire" is flaccid and redundant. Sometimes he is plain sloppy, as when he writes of "a point of punctilio"; a punctilio, of course, is a little or fine point.
None of these strictures is esoteric or persnickety: they can be found in any good style book. Edward Hoagland's prose needs to be Strunked and Whitened. CAPTION: Picture, Edward Hoagland, Copyright (c) Nancy Crampton