Many of the best readers I know have enthusiastically recommended to me the novels of Russell Hoban, who died Tuesday, in particular Riddley Walker and Turtle Diary. I don't know why I haven't taken them up on it--I do mean to, I just haven't.
Maybe the made-up language of Riddley Walker has kept me from diving in, but it could also be that I've already found my ideal Russell Hoban books. As I've written here before, reading a great book often causes me to stop reading books by that author, not read more, in part because I'm afraid of marring the perfection of that masterpiece. And I've read a few Hoban books that would be hard to top, even with a tour-de-force, post-apocalyptic classic: Bread and Jam for Frances, A Baby Sister for Frances, A Birthday for Frances, and A Bargain for Frances. I was a little surprised that Hoban's Times obit was headlined "Russell Hoban, 'Frances' Author, Dies at 86," given what a rabid following Riddley Walker has, but "'Frances' Author" is indeed how I think of him too.
The Frances books are, of course, picture books about a family of badgers. Why are they so great? There's the deadpan humor, the modesty, the wonderful match between Hoban's words and his then-wife Lillian's homey pencil illustrations. And, dare I say it, there's the morality. Children's books often bear the burden of didacticism: they carry lessons like lozenges, and often they taste like medicine going down. The Frances books are as shameless and earnest in their moral tales as any Berenstain Bears dreck, but they work, because of their humor and their patience and their modesty, all modeled by Frances's parents, who sit on the living room sofa talking fondly of missing their daughter Frances, who has dealt with the arrival of her baby sister by running away to live under the dining room table, until Frances finally comes back of her own accord, and who let Frances eat bread and jam for every meal until she gets sick of it herself.
Perhaps best of all, though, are the lists. Hoban is right up there with Nabokov and Amis among the great listmakers of the English language, and his capture the toddler's desperate pleasure in ordering things. There's Frances packing her knapsack to run away, with her tiny special blanket and her alligator doll, all her nickels and pennies, a box of prunes, and five chocolate sandwich cookies. There's Frances's sharp little friend Thelma, blandly enumerating the qualities of her tea set: plastic that does not break, pretty red flowers, all the cups and saucers, the sugar bowl, the cream pitcher, and the teapot.
And best of all, in one of the great scenes of silent drama and comedy in all of art, Albert's lunch, which he lays out on his school desk while Frances waits to eat her bread and jam:
Albert took a napkin
and tucked it under his chin.
He arranged his lunch neatly.
"I like cream cheese with cucumber
and tomatoes on rye," said Albert.
With his spoon he cracked the egg.
He sprinkled salt on the yolk.
He took a bite of sandwich,
a bite of egg, and a drink of milk.
Then he went around again.
Albert made the sandwich,
the egg, and the milk come out even.
I can testify that this scene is delicious to read out loud, as is Frances's own lunch list that comes out even at the end of the book: tomato soup, lobster-salad sandwich, celery, carrot sticks, black olives, plums, cherries, and vanilla pudding. The only delight missing? A Chompo Bar, the central object of A Birthday for Frances, and as evocative a talisman as you could hope for, especially when Frances squeezes it just a little, or sings, "Happy Chompo to me / Is how it ought to be."
I'm always in awe of the triple threats and the Renaissance men (or women), the multitalented artists who succeed in a number of fields, and Hoban, who hopped from picture books to novels, from science fiction to realist stories, already qualified, even before I found out today that he had an early career as a painter and illustrator, making regular appearances in the late '50s and early '60s on the pages, and the covers, of Time and Sports Illustrated, including cover portraits for Time of Joan Baez and Jackie Gleason that the subjects apparently disliked. Earlier this year Chris Bell wrote a wonderfully thorough post on Hoban's art career, with many sample images, including one he drew of photographer Fred Eberstadt [see left, from American Artist], who, as I suspected, was indeed the father of Fernanda Eberstadt, whose novels--and author photos--I've admired here recently. (I love when my obsessions circle around and meet each other.) And something more to track down, a 1959 picture book that Hoban himself illustrated, called What Does It Do and How Does It Work?, with wonderfully vibrant images of dump trucks, backhoes, and the like. Vintage copies are currently available on Amazon for between $5 and $250.