Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker came at me from out of the blue. I’d read a review somewhere—this was thirty years ago, when book journalism was still going strong—and I thought I knew what I was in for: a post-apocalyptic adventure in a ruined landscape, narrated by a young boy. I got a whole lot more.
Here’s the opening (ellipses mine):
On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly been the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt been none for a long time before him nor I aint looking to see none agen. . . . He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, ‘Your tern now my tern later.’ The other spears gone in then and he wer dead and the steam coming up off him in the rain and we all yelt, ‘Offert!’
Offered, indeed. Hoban offers up the boy and his universe just the way Riddley offers up the wild boar: raw, magical, and utterly complete. He gives us not just one world but a pair of them—the world where Riddley lives, and the world that collapsed before it. He gives us not just a novel but an entire language, and by immersing us in it he teaches us how language not only embodies understanding but shapes and enables it. We have to work if we want to understand the things that Riddley has to say, but before long the oddities of his speech begin to fade. Ultimately, in the way of all magic tricks, they disappear completely.
The less I describe the book, the better, so let’s leave it at this: Its mysteries are many. Its characters breathe. Its sights are indelible and its sounds will never entirely stop echoing in your ears. All of that would have been enough, of course, to leave a lasting impression. But the thing about Riddley Walker that changed my life was the completeness and the complexity of it. The integrity. It was, in John Gardner’s words, a “vivid and continuous dream”—and Hoban had made it all up out of whole cloth. Right down to the words themselves.
It was a miracle. Coming as it did from the author of a well-known series of children’s books (Eloise the Hedgehog), it was even more than a miracle. It was evidence that a dedicated craftsman, armed with imagination and commitment, could reinvent himself while inventing a world. I didn’t know it yet, but that’s what good novelists do.
You can read all the details of my journey from Random House to my own imprint in Unmediated Ink: Notes from the Self-Publishing Revolution.