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Prisoner's Dilemma

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Something is wrong with Eddie Hobson Sr., father of four, sometime history teacher, quiz master, black humorist and virtuoso invalid. His recurring fainting spells have worsened, and with his ingrained aversion to doctors, his worried family tries to discover the nature of his sickness. Meanwhile, in private, Eddie puts the finishing touches on a secret project he calls Hobbstown, a place that he promises will save him, the world and everything that's in it.

A dazzling novel of ...

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Something is wrong with Eddie Hobson Sr., father of four, sometime history teacher, quiz master, black humorist and virtuoso invalid. His recurring fainting spells have worsened, and with his ingrained aversion to doctors, his worried family tries to discover the nature of his sickness. Meanwhile, in private, Eddie puts the finishing touches on a secret project he calls Hobbstown, a place that he promises will save him, the world and everything that's in it.

A dazzling novel of compassion and imagination, Prisoner's Dilemma is a story of the power of invalid experience.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Eddie Hobson Sr. is paterfamilias personified. A retired history teacher in DeKalb, Ill., he has raised his childrenArtie, Lily, Rachel and Eddie talking to them in riddles and plaguing them with questions and tests. After a lifetime of being ruled by this petty tyrant, the now-grown children find it almost impossible, and painfully distressing, to concede that Pop might be really ill. But the virtuoso invalid and black comedian keeps passing out, and it seems the family must accept the inevitable. Artie, who worships the old man while hating him, describes his father's slow decline, interspersing his account with childhood memories and details of the mysterious dictaphone recordings that Pop has been making in private for so long. The recordings that Artie listens to secretly at last reveal the father to the son. Skillfully alternating lively colloquial dialogue with Artie's fluid, elegiac recollections, Powers, author of the praised Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance brings each member of the family to vivid, quirky life in this accomplished narrative. (March)
Library Journal
Eddie Hobson is a former history teacher who cannot escape the past. Seared by a painful experience during World War II, he develops a mysterious illness that gradually alienates him from even his own wife and children. Hobson's illness has grim physical symptoms, but its essence is ``his need to love people without knowing whether they deserved it.'' Interlaced with a third-person anatomy of the Hobson family are the first-person musings of a son trying to understand his father's eventual death. Although his subject is pathology, Powers provides a dazzling display of wit (riddles, triple puns, and palindromes) that may entertain, but also contributes to the themes of this remarkably well-crafted novel. Albert E. Wilhelm, Tennessee Technological Univ., Cookeville
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060977085
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 410,322
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

RICHARD POWERS is the author of ten novels. The Echo Maker won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Powers has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. He lives in Illinois.



It isn't easy to characterize Richard Powers in a single sentence. The MacArthur grant recipient and award-winning novelist suffers from what Powers himself, in a Salon interview, called "a restlessness of theme"—his books feature everything from molecular genetics and neural networks to soap manufacturers and singers. What they have in common is something Powers refers to as "the aerial view": a perspective that sees humankind as one small element in a complex universe.

As a child in Chicago's northern suburbs, and later as a teenager in Thailand, Powers had no thoughts of becoming a writer. He believed he was destined to be a scientist and explored paleontology, archaeology, and oceanography before he finally enrolled as a physics major at the University of Illinois. But an honors literature seminar helped inspire him to change fields, and he ended up earning his M.A. in English. Powers then moved to Boston, where he found work as a technical writer and computer programmer. He embarked on an omnivorous, self-directed reading program and spent his Saturdays at the Museum of Fine Arts, where he came across a photograph titled "Young Westerwald Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914."

"The words [of the title] went right up my spine," he later told an interviewer for Cultural Logic. "I knew instantly not only that they were on their way to a different dance than they thought they were, but that I was on the way to a dance that I hadn't anticipated until then. All of my previous year's random reading just consolidated and converged on this one moment, this image, which seemed to me to be the birth photograph of the twentieth century."

The photograph also engendered Powers's career as a novelist. His first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, was followed by Prisoner's Dilemma and The Gold Bug Variations, which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and as Time magazine's Book of the Year for 1991. Gerald Howard, writing in The Nation, called Powers "one of the few younger American writers who can stake a claim to the legacy of Pynchon, Gaddis, and DeLillo." The Gold Bug Variations, which includes the story of a Bach-obsessed scientist who abandons his quest to crack the genetic code, established Powers as a writer who could articulate questions about science and technology—which emerge again in novels like Galatea 2.2, about a writer trying to teach literature to an artificial-intelligence program named Helen, and Plowing the Dark, which explores virtual reality and the human imagination as different means (or possibly the same means) of escaping the physical limitations of life.

Powers's works are packed with puns, parallels, and allusions; as Daniel Mendelsohn noted in The New York Times Book Review, each novel is "a kind of literary installation in which art objects, theoretical musings, plots and subplots, disquisitions on intellectual and literary history, histories of countries and corporations" illuminate an underlying theme. For some critics, Powers's brand of literary gamesmanship can be too much of a good thing: "He is quite capable of fluent sequential narrative, and readers will be relieved when he lapses into it after all the self-conscious brilliance and endlessly impressive allusion," noted a Publishers Weekly review of Operation Wandering Soul. But for his fans, part of the pleasure of a Powers novel comes from its dazzling and unexpected fusions of intellect and imagination. "It's instruct and delight, right?" Powers asked in the Salon interview. "You gotta give both."

Good To Know

Powers holds the Swanlund Chair in English at the University of Illinois, where he has taught classes in multimedia authoring and the mechanics of narrative.

On the Internet, he has been the subject of several hypertext essays, along with a hypertext vignette titled "Richard Powers Eats Peanut Butter Sandwich."

Several of Powers's novels have been finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, including Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, The Gold Bug Variations, and Galatea 2.2. Operation Wandering Soul was a National Book Award finalist.

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    1. Hometown:
      Urbana, Illinois
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 18, 1957
    2. Place of Birth:
      Evanston, Illinois
    1. Education:
      M.A., University of Illinois, 1979

Read an Excerpt

The first indication that Pop had been seeing something more than heebie-jeebies for all those years came a few weeks before the end, when the old guy leaned over to Artie on the front porch of an autumn evening and said, distinctly, "Calamine." Father and son had come out after dinner to sit together on this side of the screens and see November along. They enjoyed, in silence, one of those nights that hung in the high fifties but could easily go ten degrees either way within the hour. Artie staked out the rocker while his father, as usual, exercised eminent domain over the kapok bed long ago banished to the porch because chez Hobson-a twenty-year repository of everything the family had ever owned—could not take one more cubic foot of crap without spewing it all through every doorway and window.

Silence had gotten them this far, and there seemed to Artie no reason to improve on it. He tried to chalk up his father's mumbled word to an involuntary spasm in the man's cerebral cortex, a first burst of verb salad accompanying the return of autumn. He hoped, for a moment, to hide from it, let the word fall to the ground and add to the November earthworm-stink and autumn. But Artie had no place to hide from Pop that the old man himself hadn't shown him. So he put his knuckles to the bridge of his nose, braced his face for what was coming, and asked, "Say what, Dad?"

"You heard me. Calamine. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. I plan my work and work my plan. When the tough get going, the . . ."

"Got you, Pop." Artie preempted quickly, for once Edward Hobson, Sr., was let out of the verbal paddock, he could go all night without denting his capacityfor free association. After a quarter century, Artie knew the symptoms. In the man's present condition, it was pointless to ask him straight out just what he meant by the Word. Artie tried reconstructing: Calamine, zinc oxide, iodine-nothing in that direction. Dad's invocation was certainly not a medical request. Dad abhorred all medications. His sickness was nothing so trivial or topical as dermatitis, except that in crowds, for the express purpose of publicly shaming any other Hobson with him, he had been known to sing, "It's no sin to shake off your skin and go dancing in your bones."

Artie leaned back in the rocker, farther than safe. He cocked his hands behind his head and again tried to reverse engineer the train of thought behind his father's teaser. Calamine, Gal o'Mine, Our Gal Sal. Possibly. Probably. Who could say? In part to forestall the old man from clouding the air with additional clues, Artie announced, "Technicians are working on the problem."

He looked away to the far side of the screens. Under the rustic, ineffectual globes of small-town streetlamps, men of the 19th Precinct, scions of Second Street, used the unseasonably late warm weather to apply a last-minute manicure of preventions to their houses and lawns before the assault of winter. One or two broke from the routines of ownership to throw listless waves in the direction of One-Oh-Three, without expecting any return gesture. Neither father nor son disappointed them.

A snatch of Thanksgiving tune, "All is safely gathered in," flashed through Artie's head, so he sang the line out loud, buying time. Singing made him feel incredibly foolish. He knew a glance at the bed would show his father grinning victory. So he did the only thing possible given the situation. He sang, louder, the next line: "E'er the winter's storms begin. "

Artie thought that, with as little as De Kalb, Illinois, had to offer absolutely nothing except the claim of being the place where barbed wire was invented-there was nevertheless a stretch of fourteen days in fall when no better place on earth existed. Even given the immediate circumstances, he was somehow glad to be here. He paled at the prospect of scrapping his whole semester for nothing-increasingly likely with each new day he spent away from the law-school books. He could not really afford this unplanned trip back home. He had hoped to put the visit off until Thanksgiving, swing out for a few days, share some hormone injected turkey with the rest of the gene pool, maybe watch a football game with the sibs: engage, for once, in the simple holiday fare the pilgrims intended. But the old refrain had again surfaced, drawing him unwillingly back into the crisis of family: "Your father is not well."

Artie tried to imagine his mother saying, for once, "Your father is sick," or even, "Your father is ill." But he could not hear her voicing either. The woman had long ago caught from her husband the contagious part of his disease, the part Artie himself had inherited: the hope that everything would still come clean if you only sit still, understate everything, and make yourself as small a target as possible.

"Ah, Ailene," Artie mouthed, almost audibly. He wondered if Mom ever gave up waiting for the miracle cure. He probed her words the way one might test a newly twisted ankle. Not well. But Artie did not dwell on his mother's stoic refrain. He had a more immediate test at hand. His father, perpetual high school history teacher, unrepentant grand games master, had issued a challenge: Identify the following. And Artie swore not to budge until he proved more capable of making sense out of fragments than his father was of fragmenting sense.

He stole a look kapok-way, but Dad was waiting for him. Artie never had a very smooth motion to first, and his Dad was the greatest balk detector of all time. "Son?" Pop inquired, fleshing out the word with a sadistic, smart-ass grin. Artie filled with filial hatred, a familiar and quiet disgust at knowing that Pop always had been and would be able to see through the least of the thousand pretensions Artie needed for self-esteem…



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