I tell everyone who reads – well, anyone over the age of 16 – that this book is a masterpiece and a must-read. It is not, however, “a light beach read,” unless your beach is a desert island and you are comfortable with writing that challenges, surprises, and makes you ponder imponderables.
I might be biased, but I can’t imagine anyone not being impressed by a book that begins this powerfully: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time before him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there he wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy.”
This is the language of the entire novel – of a barely-literate far-flung future. I know of few novels that can transport you into an alien time and space so completely, bringing alive the main character, a sense of history and of ragged dystopia in less than the first paragraph. This is a novel where every word has been tested, measured, savoured and put in its rightful place. With all the intensity of true poetry, Riddley Walker presents a haunting, addictive tale of the post-nuclear age.
Set in England, (now known as “Inland”) 2,000 years or so after nuclear devastation, the novel follows the protagonist, Riddley Walker as he inherits the status of “connexion man” after the sudden death of his father, also a connexion man. His father has been crushed by a “girt big black thing” of iron, which Riddley and crew have been working to excavate and salvage out of a deep, muddy ditch. Yet, with a kind of medieval stoicism, Riddley carries on, tough as nails at the age of 12, and struggles with his first attempts to make connections – between signs in the world about them, incidents like his father’s death, the coming of the wild boar onto his spear followed by a wild dog running onto the same spear – “The far come close took by the littl come big” (Riddley coming to his naming day). Driven by enigma itself, Riddley then embarks on a ten day journey of discovery in a world rent and riven and grimed.
Leaving his tribal community, he traverses an unknown world, in search of some unknown resolution. Parallel to his physical journey runs the metaphysical, versified journey of his mind – and the communal mind of the post-apocalyptic Inland – told in traveling puppet plays, Punch-and-Judy style, and chanted doggerel. The myths and rhymes tell of Mr. Clever (who harnessed nuclear power) and the Puter Leats (computer elite) who ruled the world, long before. It is easy to understand what is meant by “the Little Shyning Man the Addom” and natural to shudder inwardly at the absurd and tragic nursery-rhyme tale of humanity’s destruction which Riddley ponders on as he journeys, circling, through Inland, after some resolution or meaning he cannot even begin to shape.
Riddley Walker essentially epitomizes and personifies the tracing out of myth and riddles created by a medieval populace as a way to make sense of utter destruction and near bestial survival after cataclysm. Riddley traces out his “Fools Circel,” shadowed by the subliminally menacing figures of Goodparley and Orfing, who travel with their Punch and Judy show, representatives of a newly growing order and government. If they are the manipulative pablum of television, then Riddley himself is the heart of speech and consciousness, the heart after meaning, in a world perhaps beyond redemption.
The novel offers no comfort in resolution, no triumph over the odds. This book is not the stuff of Hollywood “save the world” movies. Our comfort is only the figure of Riddley, an undaunted infant, walking his circle, and writing out the riddle of life as he understands it. Ultimately, too, the reader has the strange comfort of having been enriched by some of the most odd and powerful language ever captured between the covers of a book. Its beauty and originality will haunt you as much as the lone, lovable, primitive figure of Riddley Walker, who has walked into cult status.