Riddley Walker - Russell Hoban There’s a point in Riddley Walker where Riddley writes, “You try to word the big things and they tern ther backs on you,” which is a bit how I feel trying to write about this book. There are so many “big things” going on in it that it’s difficult to decide what to raise in a short review. But I will try to articulate a few of the “big things” that struck me on this – my first – reading.

Riddley Walker shares a theme with Walter Miller’s [b:A Canticle for Leibowitz|258922|A Canticle for Leibowitz|Walter M. Miller Jr.|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1264282560s/258922.jpg|250975]. In that novel, our world too is destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, and its survivors spend the subsequent two thousand years recovering only to commit the same follies and suffer the same fate. Riddley Walker isn’t written on the same time scale – it takes place over the course of about a week – but the idea of humanity’s recurring folly is present. Abel Goodparley and Erny Orfing, respectively the Pry Mincer and Wes Mincer of Inland, seek to recreate the “1 Big 1” (the atom bomb) and the “1 Littl 1” (gunpowder) so they can rebuild the world from “time back way back.”

Riddley Walker is also kin to Edgar Pangborn’s [b:Davy|920958|Davy|Edgar Pangborn|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1264743957s/920958.jpg|1461307] and [b:Still I Persist in Wondering|920965|Still I Persist in Wondering|Edgar Pangborn|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1330376058s/920965.jpg|905997]. Again in the humanity-can-be-kind-of-stupid theme but also in similarities between the characters of Davy and Riddley. Both ultimately reject what their societies impose upon them. Davy’s rejection is more of an individual choice and he doesn’t set out to change anyone’s life but his own. Riddley, though, is a “happener” (in Goodparley’s estimation) and what he chooses to do will have profound consequences (you suspect; the ending leaves us at the beginning of his “roading”). And there’s an underlying humane-ness that Hoban shares with Pangborn. A sense that – despite our flaws, there is something good in us – that I don’t find so much in Miller. Chapter 15, which is the central part of the story, recounts Riddley’s flight from Goodparley, his attempt to reach a former companion (Lissener) whom he realizes is in trouble, and the epiphany he reaches in the ruins of Canterbury Cathedral (Cambry). In the course of that flight he moves from being Lissener’s ally in overthrowing the Mincers, to agreeing with Goodparley’s plans for Inland, to realizing that neither party is right and he must chart a third course:

May be all there ever ben wer jus only 1 minim when any thing ever cud be right and that minim all ways gone befor you seen it. May be soons that 1st stoan tree stood up the wrongness hung there in the branches of it the wrongness ben the 1st frute of the tree…

I wer progammit diffrent then from how I ben when I come in to Cambry. Coming in to Cambry my head ben full of words and rimes and all kynds of jumbl of yellerboy stoan thots. Back then I ben thinking of the Power of the 2 and the 1 and the Hy Power what ben wooshing roun the Power Ring time back way back. The 1 Big 1 and the Spirit of God. My mynd ben all binsy with myndy thinking. Thinking who wer going to do what and how I myt put some thing to gether befor some 1 else done it. Seed of the red and seed of the yeller and that. That onwith of the yeller boy and the pig shit in the hart of the wood. Hart of the wud. Now I dint want nothing of that. I dint know what the connexion were with that face in my mynd only I knowit that face wer making me think diffrent. I wernt looking for no Hy Power no mor I dint want no Power at all. I dint want to do nothing with that yellerboy stoan no mor. Greanvine were the name I put to that face in my mynd.

I cud feal some thing growing in me it wer like a grean sea surging in me it wer saying, LOSE IT. Saying, LET GO. Saying, THE ONLYES POWER IS NO POWER.


Which brings me to the “Eusa shows.” These are puppet shows – propaganda – put on by the Pry Mincer and the Wes Mincer to justify their rule. They are the wildly distorted remembrances of the story of St. Eustace, the scientists who created the 1 Big 1 and the governments who used it, and Punch and Judy. They form the ritualized beliefs that unite the farmers (the “forms”) and the hunter-gatherers (the “fents”) of Inland. When Goodparley takes Riddley into his confidence at one point, he tells him about and reenacts the original Punch and Judy show, and later Riddley stumbles upon an ancient Punch doll. And it’s in this medium of storytelling that Riddley begins to “happen” things. The book ends with Riddley and Orfing shaking things up with a “Punch and Pooty” play at Weaping form:

Pooty says, ‘I know that wel a nuff thats why Im going down to get on with it now wil you mynd the babby?’

Punch says, ‘Not a bit. Mmmmm. Yum yum yum.’

Pooty says, ‘Whyd you say “Yum yum yum”?’

Punch says, ‘I wer jus clearing my froat.’

Pooty says, ‘For what?’

Punch says, ‘So I can sing to the babby.’

Pooty says, ‘What kynd of song you going to sing?’

Punch says, ‘Yummy py.’

Pooty says, ‘Whatd you say?’

Punch says, ‘Lulling by. Iwl sing the babby lulling bys.’

Pooty terns to the crowd she says, ‘Wud you please keap a eye on him wylst Im frying my swossages. Give us a shout wil you if he dont mynd that babby right.’

Theres plenny of voices in the crowd then speaking up theyre saying, ‘Dont you worry Pooty wewl keap a eye on him.’ Easyers voice says, ‘Wewl see your babby right Pooty that littl crookit barset he bes not try nothing here.’

Punch he dont anser nothing to that. When Pooty goes down hes zanting a littl with the babby its a littl jerky kynd of dants. Hes singing:

‘There wer a littl babby
A piglet fat and juicy
Who ever got ther hans on him
They cudnt tern him lucey
Ah yummy yummy yummy
Ah slubber slubber sloo
Ah tummy tummy tummy
Ah piggy piggy poo’


The crowd becomes so incensed by Punch’s imminent cannibalism that one jumps up and attacks Riddley to stop it. There’s a parallel here between this and a story Riddley tells early in the book about the Bad Times when a couple are convinced by a “clevver” man to kill and eat their own child. Punch, the “clevver” one, can never be trusted with the “babby,” the “Power” (?):

The clevver looking bloak said, 'Iwl tel you what Iwl do Iwl share you my fire and my cook pot if youwl share me what to put in the pot.' He wer looking at the chyld.

The man and the woman thot: 2 out of 3 a live is bettern 3 dead. They said, 'Done.'

They kilt the chyld and drunk its blood and cut up the meat for cooking.

The clevver looking bloak said, 'Iwl show you how to make fire plus Iwl give you flint and steal and makings nor you dont have to share me nothing of the meat only the hart.'

Which he made the fire then and give them flint and steal and makings then he cookt the hart of the chyld and et it.

The clevver looking bloak said, 'Clevverness is gone now but littl by littl itwl come back. The iron wil come back agen 1 day and when the iron comes back they wil bern chard coal in the hart of the wood. And when they bern the chard coal ther stack wil be the shape of the hart of the chyld.' Off he gone then singing:

Seed of the littl
Seed of the wyld
Seed of the berning is
Hart of the chyld'


And this just scratches the surface. I originally gave Riddley Walker three stars (albeit, a strong three stars) but upon rereading passages, looking at other GR reviews, and following the threads of a serendipitously found discussion of the book at the A.V. Club, I’m revising my appraisal to four stars and even more strongly recommend this book.

Oh, yeah – the language. As you may have gathered from the quotes above, Riddley Walker is written in the vernacular of Inland but this isn’t a gimmick. If you’re able to get through the first chapter or two, the rules of Riddley’s English become clear and it’s only occasionally difficult to understand what’s going on (e.g., it took a random reference in the A.V. Club thread to “Salt 4” meaning “sulfur” before I figured that one out). Using it, however, Hoban makes readers inhabit Riddley’s world like no other device can and demands that they pay attention to what’s (and what’s not) being said.