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"The Big What-Is-It"

Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer,
Russell Hoban,
Random House hardback, NZ$39.95

In an ideal world, Russell Hoban would outrank Charles Frazier and Jeffrey Archer in the best-seller lists. In the world we have, US-born Hoban remains a cult writer in Britain, where he lives, has failed to find a publisher for this and his previous novel in the States and his readers are more endangered than certain species of sea turtle.

He survives by writing for children - the most discerning readers - with his Frances series well-known in a few languages. The last grownup offering was science-fiction mystery Fremder. Rinyo-Clacton brings us back to Earth and Hoban's evocation of present-day London is peerless.

When Jonathan Fitch loses not only his job but his 'destiny-woman', Serafina, it is in the Underground where he is disentangled from his self-pitying binge by Mr Rinyo-Clacton. This bizarre twist on an Indecent Proposal fantasy has Fitch desperate enough to accept the offer of a million pounds cash in exchange for his own life after a year - and guess who gets to play Grim Reaper.

Yet this is much more than a tale of young people trying out amorality to see whether they like it as much as money. It belongs ostensibly to a literary tradition dating back (via von Chamisso's Peter Schlemihl) to Marlowe's Tragical History of Dr Faustus and including William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel, inspiration for Alan Parker's film Angel Heart. Hoban maintains this is no Faustian tale. For a start it is funnier. It may be that only Hoban knows how to extract this bittersweet humour so successfully; perhaps only he bothers to try: "I smelled money and something else, medicinal and disciplinary, that I thought of as bitter aloes. As far as I know I've never smelled bitter aloes but the name suggests the smell I have in mind."

After getting a whiff, you may find yourself wanting more - not only of Mr Rinyo-Clacton, but of Mr Hoban. You won't regret having accepted this offer as you delve into the new, expanded edition of his post-nuclear Huck Finn, Riddley Walker (1980), when published by Indiana University Press later this year.

Book review: Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer, Russell Hoban
Reviewer: Chris Bell
Commissioned by: Ian Sharp, Books Editor, The Sunday Star-Times (New Zealand's best-selling Sunday newspaper, incorporating the Sunday Star and Auckland Star), published by Independent News Auckland Ltd, a division of Independent Newspapers Ltd, from News Media (Auckland), 155 New North Road, Auckland, P. O. Box 1327.

© The Sunday Star-Times, 1998

1B, 15 Augustus Terrace
Parnell, Auckland 1001
New Zealand

Back to Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer

Back to The Head of Orpheus: a Russell Hoban Reference Page (home page).