Russell Hoban, author of Riddley Walker and other cult classics, died last night at the age of 86. The first “review” I ever wrote on this site was for Riddley Walker (the review is so bad that I won’t link to it out of shame); that was back when Biblioklept’s primary mission was to document stolen books. I stole the book from a dear friend and subsequently lent it to a student who never returned it. Oh, the circle of theft! Riddley Walker is the sort of book that begs to be stolen (or never returned, or passed on to another). It’s an apocalyptic Huckleberry Finn, a coming of age story set against the backdrop of a new dark age. Riddley Walker is deeply weird and strongly strange; I don’t know what a “cult” novel is, but I know of no better example.
Riddley Walker might be Hoban’s most famous work (aside from his children’s works, including the Frances the Badger series), but readers who stopped there would do well to pick up some of his earlier books. The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz is a fantasy piece about fathers, sons, and map-making; Kleinzheit, a baffling schizophrenic novel, explores death and illness in an animistic world; Pilgermann plumbs the medieval intersection of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, narrated through the eyes of the ghost of a castrated European Jew on a bizarre holy quest—it’s like Hieronymous Bosch on LSD.
The Guardian has a short but lucid biographical obit for Hoban, which ends with Hoban contemplating how death might affect his career:
Death, Hoban predicted in 2002, would “be a good career move”. “People will say, ‘yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let’s look at him again’,” he said.
The grim humor there was always part of Hoban’s program, and I hope that he’s right: I hope that folks who haven’t heard of Hoban will pick up Riddley Walker, and perhaps those who haven’t read beyond that book will make time to read another.