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John Wilson

Russell Hoban, RIP

Remembering the author of "Riddley Walker."

Like a boy, I still have wishes. For a long time I have wished that someone would do an audio version of Riddley Walker, one of the great books of the 20th century. Set in Britain in the distant future, after a nuclear catastrophe, the novel is written in a cunningly invented English that assumes well-nigh hypnotic power as the book progresses: "Stoans want to be lissent to. Them big brown stoans in the formers feal they want to stan up and talk like men. Some times youwl see them lying on the groun with ther humps and hollers theywl say to you, Sit a wyl and res easy why dont you." Whenever I read that passage, I think of my wife, Wendy, and I wish we could listen together—with our eyes closed, maybe—to a reader so skillful that we wouldn't even be aware of him: the words, tumbling after one another, would seem to be speaking themselves.

I feel that wish more keenly now that Russell Hoban is dead. Born in Pennsylvania in 1925, he decamped to England in 1969 and lived there until his death last week. Riddley Walker is his masterpiece, yes—as worn out as that label is, nothing else will do. But he wrote many books, including several excellent standalone novels. The books that helped the most to pay the bills were written for children, especially the Frances series (we read those to our kids).

Late in his life, at an age when many writers have fallen silent, Hoban began a series of novels connected by various themes, motifs, preoccupations, stylistic quirks, and elective affinities. Not formally a series, like the Raj Quartet or Dance to the Music of Time, but a suite of books. In some cases, characters who feature prominently in one novel appear on the periphery of another (as in Kieslowski's Decalogue). The first of these books, Mr. Rinyo-Clacton's Offer, was published in 1998; the most recent, Angelica Lost and Found, in 2010. There have been nine altogether. I'll warn you: They are strange, sometimes dark and perverse, sometimes stumbling, other times captivating, good enough to give you the shivers. I tend to prefer the ones narrated in a single voice to those divvied up among several voices.

The protagonist of Amaryllis Night and Day (2001), a painter named Peter Diggs, speaks for Hoban when he tells us: "I live in a state of surprise much of the time; things others take for granted suddenly amaze me. Moving toward the ever-receding vanishing point I was struck by the frailty of what human beings have put together like something out of a box: houses; shops; roads; streetlamps; trains and railway stations; aeroplanes and airports."

We have the results of that fertile "state of surprise" in these nine books. If, explicitly, they cling to certain self-exculpating myths (after all, a man who frequently lives in a state of surprise can't be bothered with the constraints of bourgeois morality and the nostrums of organized religion, can he?), implicitly they tell another tale.

"Why is Punch crookit?" wonders Riddley Walker at the end of his tale. "Why wil he all ways kil the babby if he can? Parbly I wont never know its jus on me to think on it."

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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