Something influenced me to pick up my first novel by Russell Hoban. Perhaps it was an article in the NYT book review or some offhand comment in one of my bookish podcasts; but leading into the 2020 election is certainly one of the most enlightening times to read this book for the first time. Riddley Walker is set in a postapocalyptic future, which only has whispers and memories of the atrocities of our time that led to a new dark age overrun by murderous dogs, cold rains, and bleak muddy roads.
We follow the titular twelve-year-old boy, Riddley Walker, whose name is apt for his wandering the country (illustrated map included) and young confusion throughout the novel. Early on, Walker’s father is killed in a work accident in the sweaty and dangerous bowels of the earth, and Walker is crowned the new Connexion Man – a title given to the locally appointed scryer who interprets the various Punch and Judy puppet shows that come through town and have the narrative oral history of the Christlike Eusa memorized for recitation whenever need be. Riddley finds his own Punch puppet buried at a dig site and chokes in front of everyone at his first big Connexion event. The leaders demand the puppet and his help in finding some of the explosive mysteries of our era. Riddley is then on the run for not only his life, but the existence of what little remains of the human race.
The story of this 1980 novel is only part of my fascination, however. While the story is captivating as it is, the book is written in a unique dialect that drives some incredible prose in the novel. The dialect drives strong worldbuilding. Where most books written in ridiculous dialects feel forced and a slog to get through, Hoban’s prose seems to manifest his characters, environment, mythology, oral history, technology, and a strange mirror to today in a manner that produced a somewhat grounding effect in my reading of it. It was more vivid, more distant, more dimensional because of the way the book is written – and that is likely the hallmark of an author that uses this very delicate method of storytelling successfully.
Additionally, the dialect also breathes life into a bizarre and slanted primary meaning, as well as a secondary cultural meaning derived from the characters understanding of their world and their understanding of our world that came before them (when us clevver men walked the earth). This brought me to savor my journey through the lands Riddley presents us, as every sentence not only further’s the narrative, but also winks a hundred times at a variety of allusions both near and far to Riddley. Hoban constructed not only an ingenious fable, but an ingenious way to tell it that is both witty and accessible – think an everyman’s Finnegan’s Wake. A great deal of fun can be had reading it aloud for its cadence, while chuckling at its jokes.
Riddley Walker is a beautiful novel. It is complex, short, sweet, approachable, funny, and terrifying, and an excellent allegory for the very world of confusion and unclear messages of our lives. One learns that even in a world completely refreshed, where those of our future have forgotten about the destroyed past of today, there is still some magic in the air that holds like a thin veil to the realities of human corruption. I hope that on the tenth anniversary of his passing that we are allowed to leave behind a lot of what we are experiencing now; through the eyes of a child, and the heart of dogs, the truth is much simpler than we are aware of.
Header image by Allen Watkin, Creative Commons Share-Alike