“I didn’t write adult novels until the age of 46 because I had nothing to say,” confesses Russell Hoban, whose body of work primarily rested between the covers of 31 children’s books. But the American expatriate, who settled in England in 1969, has made up for lost time with his tour de force vision of life after Doomsday, Riddley Walker (Summit, $12.95). His fourth foray into adult fiction has earned Hoban, at 56, raves on both sides of the Atlantic. “This short, swiftly paced tale,” trumpets the New York Times, “juxtaposes preliterate fable and Beckettian wit, Boschian monstrosities and a hero with Huck Finn’s heart and charm…”
Set in the 45th century, the book describes a post-apocalyptic world where natives battle wild dogs and their own brutishness for survival. Hoban’s hero, Riddley Walker, 12, becomes a shaman who searches for meaning in his people’s ancient legends and the surviving artifacts from an earlier Golden Age. The tale, which would frustrate most casual readers, is narrated throughout in what Hoban calls a “worn-down, broken-apart kind of English” that echoes Chaucer as well as space-age slang. It is “the language that people in that kind of world would use,” he explains. “If there’s a big bang and civilization goes bust, then we’d have a corrupted vernacular with bits of scientific jargon floating around in it like meat in a stew.”
The new vocabulary didn’t come easily. Hoban labored over the book for five and a half years, at one point scrapping two years’ work and 500 pages because “they weren’t it. I went back to page one 14 or 15 times. I was just flying by the seat of my pants and playing it by ear.”
Imagined worlds like Riddley’s first entered Hoban’s psyche during his childhood in Lansdale, Pa. His father, Abram—a Russian immigrant who became ad manager for the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper—was an amateur director who rehearsed plays at home. “That introduced a lot of light and shade and color into my life,” Hoban recalls. “I became used to seeing things intensified.” Graduating from high school at 16, he met Lillian Aberman during his first year at the Philadelphia Museum’s art school. They were married three years later. After Army service in World War II as an infantry messenger in Italy, Hoban found little demand for his paintings of street scenes and all-night diners, so he hired on with a New York ad agency as an art director for TV commercials.
He and Lillian raised four kids, now aged 28 to 18, and collaborated on 27 children’s books, including their minor classic The Mouse and His Child. Lillian provided the drawings, Russell the text. As an illustrator, he says, “I have a feeling for broken-nosed trainers and prizefighters—not for little cuddly animals.”
A year after the family moved to London, Hoban walked out on his wife, and Lillian returned stateside with the children. “What happened to me happens to a lot of men,” he says. “They want to feel young again and cast themselves adrift.” Hoban was not alone for long. The day after he and Lillian were formally divorced in 1975, he married German-born bookseller Gundula Ahl, now 37, by whom he had already had two sons. A third son was born three years later. Of his first four offspring, only the two youngest are in touch with Hoban, who laments the estrangement of the elders as a “devastating loss.” But, he confesses, “There are egocentric people whose whole approach to life is in terms of their own development, and they’re willing to explode themselves and their families to be what they can be.”
Hoban credits the breakup for helping him to write adult fiction. “When Lillian and I were together, I censored myself,” he says. “It was only afterward that I allowed myself to use all my thoughts and experience in my writing.” A 10-year stint with psychotherapy bolstered his confidence. Says Gundula: “He’s a maverick, an obsessed man whose obsessions please a lot of people, me included.” Still, “He’s somewhat difficult to live with,” she concedes, “very much preoccupied with himself.”
These days Hoban’s schedule includes a morning walk of precisely a mile and three-quarters near his three-bedroom Victorian home in southwest London’s Fulham district. Since a 1977 heart attack, he no longer jogs. And diabetes frustrates his love for Gundula’s homemade cakes and cookies.
But illness rarely keeps Hoban from his Olympia Standard keyboard. “My writing comes first, and there really isn’t anything second,” he admits. His next novel, Pilgermann, is narrated in straight English by a German Jew killed in 1098 during the First Crusade. Though flattered by critics’ comparisons of his work to Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, one of his early heroes, Hoban is quick to point out important differences. “He was still writing the most primitive kind of adventure story, in which there are bad guys and good guys,” he notes. “In my books there aren’t characters who are simply bad or simply good. Nothing in life is that simple.”