Reviews: Wednesday's Book: Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer by Russell Hoban (Jonathan Cape, pounds 14.99)

Stories like this come at the end of things. They are the Devil to deal with, like telegraphs from the front lines of a war whose origins have long been forgotten. Wrapped in the coils of an ancient underlying story, they can hardly bear to mention, the protagonists of Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer - a neat example of the type - slide over the echoes of that tale like waterbugs on Prozac. Around them, there is the clatter and clutter of pond life. Below their feet, the deep is bottomless.

Russell Hoban remains most famous, perhaps, for The Mouse and his Child (1967), one of the two or three finest children's stories of the last half century. His eighth novel for adults is a pact-with-the-Devil tale, though Hoban provides no unmasking of Mephistopheles, no brimstone, no clawing down to Hell. And the Faust figure, who narrates his story in numbed retrospect, signs the pact not to gain knowledge or power, but out of despair at losing his girl.

We are in London, in 1994. Jonathan Fitch slumps in a stairwell deep within Piccadilly Circus station, looking like death warmed over. Mr Rinyo- Clacton (a pseudonym; Riny-Clacton is a Late Neolithic pottery style) accosts him, invites him to a performance of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, seduces him (he seems supernaturally strong); and offers him a million pounds for a year, after which period he will take his life.

Seemingly fixed by the lidless gaze of Story, Jonathan accepts. He moves to the Lord Jim Hotel. He approaches his lost lover, Serafina, again; discovers that she, too, has been seduced by Rinyo-Clacton. Both are afraid that Rinyo-Clacton may be HIV-positive. They begin to talk to one another again. The plot scatters them about.

They pace through London as though it were a ghost town. The superficial story of their movement towards wary reconciliation climaxes in a catastrophe which saves them.

Afterwards, they potter onwards in their lives, civilian lifers in shallow waters.

Beneath this story, all is darkness. Mr Rinyo-Clacton's given name, he informs them, is Thanatophile; but he is too deeply tied to his bargain- hunt for meaning to be a ready lover of Death, which carries him down nonetheless. In the end, he begs Jonathan for consolation. They are standing on Hungerford Bridge; he points downwards: "Underneath," he says, "there's only the blackness. Like that music: shining golden goblets but the wine is black water; that's all there is now and forever."

Jonathan can only shrug.

So this savage, crafty, sad, dusty, deathly little novel ends in desuetude. London may sing Jonathan its liebestod, "the big red 74 buses novembering down the Earl's Court Road", but he cannot respond. Serafina has become mundane. And Rinyo-Clacton is gone. There is no more story to tell. There is only the dust and ashes of continuing to exist, far from the front.

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