Russell Hoban, an American who spent his most productive years as an expat in England, died this past December 13. A prolific and highly-imaginative writer of both adult and childrens' books, Hoban sprang to the forefront of literary fiction writers with his stunning 1980 post-apocalyptic novel, Riddley Walker. A reviewer in the Sunday Telegraph wrote of the author, "I've often thought of Russell Hoban as a sentimental Samuel Beckett for people who would rather Vladimir and Estragon just did something while waiting for Godot not to show up."
My favorite Hoban novel is Linger Awhile, a short work from 2007 which blends apparent reality with the most outrageous science fiction to consider the poignant mysteries, illogicalities, and contradictions of old age. Irving Goodman, an 83-year-old (Hoban's age at the time) widower becomes obsessed with Justine Trimble, a long-dead star of crummy western movies. He recruits his friend, the aptly-named Istvan Fallok, to resurrect the actress from a movie tape, but the pair of lascivious oldsters soon find out that to stay alive, Justine needs regular doses of human blood. Then, things get interesting, in a Chinese-curse sort of way.
Maybe my enthusiasm for this book reflects the possibility that an elderly male, especially if he happens to be a writer, might be particularly susceptible to the subject matter. But I prefer to think that what hooked me was Hoban's brilliance at cloaking the fantastic in prodigious verbal agility. Did I mention that Linger Awhile is written in first-person point of view - of no less than eleven characters? I was so dazzled by Hoban's way with words that I was even able to look past his premise that Justine Trimble's need for blood was grounded in a requirement for continued replacement of genetic material. Adult red blood cells, having no nuclei, don't contain chromosomes.
Hoban also ranks high on my list of authors who write lines I'd love to steal, if only I had the nerve. My favorite in Linger Awhile comes as Irv is about to engage in a bit of geriatric sex with his new friend, Grace Kowalski. Grace tries to encourage him: "Don't ever say you're not a player." "Well, I don't do the full orchestra," Irv replies, "but if you like chamber music, I'm your man."
In his later years, Hoban, a self-described writing addict, remarked that "when the tank is getting empty I think you drive a little faster." And he thought death might "be a good career move. People will say, 'Yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let's look at him again'."
Linger awhile, Russell.