Linger Awhile, by Russell Hoban

Attack of the sexy vampire toad girls
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The Independent Culture

"Nobody talks about end-of-life crises but they do happen," says Irving Goodman, in love at the age of 83 with Justine Trimble, the nubile star of the low-rent Western Last Stage to El Paso. He's nearly dead but she's been dead for 47 years. Understandably desperate, Irv nips down to Soho and enlists the help of Istvan Fallok, an electrical alchemist and occasional composer: "He was smart and he was weird and that made me believe in him." Twenty convenient gallons of primordial soup later, Justine's particles are bubbling in a suspension of disbelief and out pops a black-and-white cowgirl vampire with a hunger for colourful human blood.

This is just 15 pages into Linger Awhile, the blessed 14th novel by Russell Hoban who at more than twice the age of the Mitchells and Zadies - he turns 81 next month - remains by far the most imaginative novelist in Britain. Twenty-six years after the publication of his masterpiece, Riddley Walker, a book that conjured post-nuclear England in a form of corrupted English as brilliantly transfigured as its landscape, Hoban's scenic ambit has narrowed but his powers show no signs of abating. The past five books, set mainly in London and freely exchanging characters and references, meld the same fierce imaginative drive with ostensibly realist tales of city life and love to create a unique and peculiar union of the everyday and the wholly surreal.

This latest offering bristles with the genially wayward delight in story that has always characterised Hoban's writing. There is a kosher Chinese restarant (latkes Xingjiang with sour cream a speciality) and a cameo appearance from the prophet Elijah. A second cowgirl vampire gets reconstructed with bits of toad instead of frog, lending a psychoactive dimension to her nocturnal rambles ("I couldn't very well ring up the police and tell them to be on the look-out for a sexy woman in wet clothes with a hallucinogenic tongue," complains one character). The writing throughout is by turns hilariously owlish and magisterially concise, often both - as when a City type is described as having "eyes like rivets that keep his brain in place but the rivets are a little loose by now".

Hoban's late novels - he has written eight since turning 70 - have all dealt with the difficulties of love and lust among those old enough to know better. Linger Awhile, in which three old men share a fantasy and give it life until it sucks the life out of them, is no exception, and the central love story between Irv and his friend, Grace (a vodka-loving jeweller who's a dab hand with a Louisville Slugger), is touchingly and bracingly evoked. But the primary pleasure of this book and of Hoban's writing in general is the unsullied joy at the strange great coincidence of life that breathes through every sentence. "I find it impossible to stop writing," states the author in his afterword. And thank heavens for that.

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