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Cardinal Numbers – Hob Broun

Hob Broun is a curious case of the forgotten writer and book, yet one that must be discussed and remembered.  Hailing from Portland, he published three books: the novels Odditorium and Inner Tube, and the collection, Cardinal Numbers. The later two were written while the author was paralyzed from the neck down due to a complicated surgery on his spine.

The New York Times published this obituary:

Hob Broun, a Novelist, Dies as Respirator Fails

Published: December 24, 1987

Hob Broun, a writer, died of asphyxiation Dec. 16 when his respirator broke down in his home in Portland, Ore. He was 37 years old.

Seven years ago, Mr. Broun underwent surgery to remove a spinal tumor, resulting in paralysis. He was dependent on a respirator, which, along with an alarm system, failed.

Mr. Broun wrote two books by expelling air through a catheter that activated the keyboard of a computer. In this way, he wrote a novel, ”Inner Tube,” and a collection of short stories, to be published in May. The publisher of both books, along with his first novel, ”Odditorium,” is Alfred A. Knopf.

Mr. Broun was born in Manhattan and graduated from the Dalton School. He attended Reed College in Portland. He is survived by his father, Heywood Hale Broun, the writer and broadcaster, and his mother, Jane Broun, of Woodstock, N.Y, and Manhattan.

Lish acquired and edited his last two books and the collection was published a year after Brown’s passing.  The Hob Broun Prize was established through the family and handed out through The Quarterly. Janet Mitchell was one winner, whose debut The Creepy Girl was recently released from Starcherone Books. Another winner was William Tester, who published a novel, Darling, with Lish and Knopf, and later won the Saraband Books Fiction Prize for Head, a collection chosen by judge Amy Hempel — fellow Lish writer and classmate at Columbia with Tester…we will talk about that sneaky nepotism later, and how writers who know the judge aren’t supposed to enter contests….meanwhile, what we’re talking about is talking about Hob Broun, unfairly taken from us at age 37, unfairly overlooked today.

The 19 stories are terse, minimal, funny, sad, and some appeared in The Q, of course. One must remember, when reading Broun, that he was composing these sentences via an air tube (which makes us wonder how the editing process went).

Riley eats out all the time because it is less sad. She moved out on him in December; plane trees are now tipped with early April green, but sweeping, matching socks, heating stew — these things are still sad for him. (“Cycling Posture,” p. 49)

We have not yet read Inner Tube but we will (Lish did not edit his first novel). It is too easy to wonder what Broun would have written had he lived (he was half-way through his third novel) and whether or not he would be known and respected today, and not relegated to a footnote in 20th Century American fiction.


One response »

  1. wow. thanks for this. i have to check this guy out.

    “Mr. Broun wrote two books by expelling air through a catheter that activated the keyboard of a computer.”



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