HER NAME WAS LOLA

By Russell Hoban. Arcade. 207 pp. $24To me, Russell Hoban's perfectly cadenced, slyly comic prose is ambrosia. I once asserted that he is the only living writer to have written masterpieces for every age group, from beginning readers to adults: Bread and Jam for Frances, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen, The Mouse and His Child, Riddley Walker. Yet these are just four outstanding books from an oeuvre of probably 60 or 70 titles, most of them for children, with perhaps only a dozen for adults and those sometimes elusively hermetic (e.g., Kleinzeit, The Medusa Frequency). Whatever its intended age group, Hoban's best work repeatedly explores the same themes: the search for love, the nature of creativity, the power of ancient symbols (Punch and Judy, the Orpheus legend, Indian deities) and the shimmering, shifting, unreliable nature of reality.

All these play their part in Her Name Was Lola, a winsomely endearing love story, tinged with fantasy, and just right for summer. Max Lesser, in his early forties, "writes novels that don't sell, children's picture books that do." But he's been suffering from what he calls "blighter's rock" for some while now, and beginning to worry. Though he spends 10 hours a day at his computer, he can't generate a useful "Page One" for any new grown-up novel, and his ideas for yet another Charlotte Prickles story seem lugubrious at best.

" 'The basic hedgehog condition is sadness,' says Max. 'Charlotte is thinking of how many hedgehogs have tasted the sweetness of the moon, all of them gone in the whisper of the trees and the rustling of the years.'

" 'Whoa, boy,' says Max's mind. 'This kind of thinking is not going to get Charlotte all the way to the bank.' "

One morning in 2001 the blocked writer goes out to lunch and discovers that he has forgotten a big chunk of his life from four years earlier. Somebody has invoked the Indian dwarf-demon Apasmara Purusha to blot out his memory of Lola. After Max figures out how to release himself from this curse, he is overwhelmed by sorrow. Back in late 1996 he visited a record store in search of Monteverdi's opera "L'Orfeo," met Lola Bessington, and the two fell in love. Lola, daughter of a well-to-do British family, had been supposed to marry the multitalented Basil Meissen-Potts, a rising young lawyer. But to their joy Max and Lola first discovered a shared passion for classical music -- they both owned an old Nikolaus Harnoncourt recording of "L'Incoronazione di Poppea" -- and then a like metaphysical mind-set. They came to feel destined for each other. When they went out walking in the evening, "the two of them [were] the little village of each other in the winter night."

But one afternoon, only a few weeks into their courtship, the enamored couple run into the mouth-watering Lula Mae Flowers, originally from Austin. We are talking beauty queen, Lone Star knockout, irresistible man-puller. A few days later, Max -- against the advice of his mind (an important character in the novel) -- visits the siren at her job and they go out to lunch:

"Lula Mae flashes him a smile that makes him dizzy, takes his arm, and marches him off to The Garibaldi, her favourite lunchtime spot. There are lots of male pedestrians on the way, and when she passes, each one she passes says, 'Ah.' "

The flesh is frail. Before long Max and his mind are constantly arguing about just what kind of game he's playing: On the one hand, there's Lola, young, beautiful, his soul mate, his destiny-woman; on the other, Lula Mae, visual evidence that God is a man. Eventually, Lola starts asking why her beloved looks so confused and uncertain all the time: "Just reviewing my life," says Max, "as a drowning man might do."

At this point our hero has only begun to drown, and so let us pause and also review a few other matters. Russell Hoban depicts a novelist named Max Lesser, who is much like himself (albeit 30 years younger). Eventually Max begins a novel about a painter named Moe Levy, much like himself, who becomes involved with women named Lulu and Linda Lou. Meanwhile, the two or three-page chapters of the book we're actually reading are bouncing back and forth between 1997, the time of the love intrigue, and 2001, the time when Max is trying to recapture his past, write about Moe and Charlotte, and somehow reconnect with his lost love.

Such Borges-like games are fairly common in modern fiction, and usually heavy-handed. But Hoban keeps his touch feather light. No doubt years of writing for children lead to knowing how to suggest a lot with simple diction: Limpid sentences touchingly evoke Max's feelings of utter loss. Moreover, one cherishes Hoban's casual pictures of the writer's disheveled life:

"Now they're standing in his workroom which looks like something between a shipwreck and a bomb site. Bulging ranks of books look down from the shelves and totter in stacks on the floor along with dangerous heaps and sprawls of videotapes. Max's computer sits on a trestle table in a welter of paper and CDs. Discarded pages litter the floor under his chair.

" 'This works for you, does it?' says Lola.

" 'Oh yes. I don't know where everything is but I know where a lot of things are.' "

Since Russell Hoban is a man of intense, unexpected learning, Her Name Was Lola tells part of its story through allusions to Schubert's "Winterreise," H.P. Lovecraft, the I Ching, Willa Cather's My Antonia, the Diamond Sutra, Claude Lorrain and Oliver Onions's immortal ghost story "The Beckoning Fair One." Lola, we discover, has spent those missing four years learning to play ragas on the Indian sarod. As his regular readers know, the music, art and books Hoban mentions are always important to the author himself. "I work with the material that comes to me and I go where it takes me," says Max, echoing sentiments expressed in interviews by his creator. "All I can promise is that I'll explore the material."

Hoban certainly does that here, with his usual self-deprecating wit, a bit of melodrama and a real sense of both life's complexity and how deeply we sometimes yearn to redeem the past. "People are composed of memories, losses, longings and regrets." Max's love for Lola is so heartfelt -- despite his dalliance with Lula Mae -- that we want them back together. They deserve each other. And yet.

But I've said enough. Her Name Was Lola will haunt you as the memory of Lola haunts Max. Besides, it's the rare love story that explores the implications of "form and emptiness" -- which makes it, for that reason alone, all the more wonderful. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.