Russell Hoban, who published his first adult novel in 1973 at the age of 48, has enjoyed an extraordinary late flowering. Of his fourteen novels, eight were published since 1996 (with another due later this year). I’ll have what he’s having. And yet after enjoying some of his earlier novels, I found that his later ones seemed to be developing not quite a formula – a writer as unpredictable as Hoban could never be accused of that – but what Detective Inspector Hunter in Linger Awhile might call “certain similarities.” Older men and younger women; cultural esoterica; technology and sex; and modern day London. So it was with hope and trepidation that I approached Hoban’s latest.
Hoban describes it as a “vampire farce” and that pretty much sums it up. The great revelation is that it tells a much more linear and straightforward story than most of his books – though ‘straightforward’ might not be precisely the word for a novel where a group of three middle-aged to elderly men conjure up a dead star of Hollywood Westerns out of the electronic ether and she sets about a little light bloodsucking. Or as one character puts it to himself: “Nothing would be simple from now on, and I was wondering if I mightn’t be too old for reactivating dead women from videotapes.”
But it combines these welcome qualities with Hoban’s usual charm and likeability – even when he’s being a little too whimsical, you can’t help enjoying yourself – and produces dialogue that one would never have expected to see in a piece of modern literary fiction, such as this exchange when the man who brought actress Justine Trimble back from the dead tries to persuade his friend to join the conspiracy:
‘If you want to join the Justine club you’ll have to give her some of what it takes. As the fellow said, “The blood is the life”.’
‘And in return?’
‘You get what you’ve been craving for. Justine is a treat to look at when she’s been haematologically refreshed and she’ll be very affectionate, I promise you.’
‘My God, you’re pimping for her.’
‘Needs must when the Devil drives. You can take the moral high ground or you can follow your heart.’
‘My heart, for Christ’s sake!’
‘Or whatever part is leading you. We’re talking pragmatism here.’
If this all sounds a little silly, well, it is, but the book is also littered with Hoban’s deep literary intelligence, and gives us plenty on frustration, loss, late regrets and growing old disgracefully. It has a magical, winning tone which sets Hoban apart from pretty much anyone else now writing, and it seems truly rare – and almost guilt-inducing – for such a beautifully executed literary achievement to be as much fun as this.
Douglas Adams, writing about P.G. Wodehouse’s unfinished novel Sunset at Blandings, commented that “At the age of ninety-three, I think you’re entitled to have your best work behind you.” Maybe so: but Russell Hoban, eleven years younger, is still producing his best books.