Monday, May 9, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Davy

If I'd have realized, back when I started looking back on literature inspirational to old school gaming that I'd still be at it three years later, I might have come up with a broader title for the series than "Pulp Fantasy Library." Often I look to books that stretch the definition of either "pulp" or "fantasy" -- or both -- and yet I feel compelled to highlight them nonetheless. A good case in point is Edgar Pangborn's 1964 post-apocalyptic picaresque, Davy, which probably counts as a fantasy but it's not particularly pulpy, even according to a very generous understanding of the word.

Instead, this novel recalls books such as The History of Tom Jones and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, especially the latter, since they're both written from the point of view of the titular character in a colloquial style that sometimes takes some getting used to. Davy lives 300 years in our future after a nuclear war has devastated the world and brought about "the Days of Confusion," which in turn brought about a new society suspicious of the knowledge and science of "the Old Times." In Nuin (New England) where Davy lives, this new society is supported by the Holy Murcan Church and, rather than being a benevolent organization like the Catholic Church of Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, Pangborn's Church is retrograde and tyrannical, opposed to almost everything associated with the Old Times -- or that would undermine its preeminent position in the new order.

As I said, Davy is told in the first person, taking the form of a memoir by Davy in his later years. Born to a prostitute, raised in a Church orphanage, and sold as a bondservant to an inn, Davy begins his tale in this way:
I'm Davy, who was king for a time. King of the Fools, and that calls for wisdom.
It happened in 323, in Nuin, whose eastern boundary is a coastline on the great sea that in Old Time was called the Atlantic--the sea where now this ship winds her passage through gray or golden days and across the shoreless latitudes of night. It was in my native country Moha, and I no more than a boy, that I acquired my golden horn and began to learn its music. Then followed my years with Rumley's Ramblers into Katskil, Levannon, Bershar, Vairmant, Conicut and the Low Countries--years of growing, with some tasty girls and good friends and enough work. And when, no longer with the Ramblers, I came into Nuin, I must have been nearly a man, or the woman I met there, my brown-eyed Nickie with the elf-pointed ears, would not have desired me.
I learned my letters, or they called it learning them, at the school in Skoar, but actually I knew nothing of reading and writing until my time with the Ramblers, when Mam Laura Shaw lost patience with my ignorance and gave me the beginning of light. Being now twenty-eight and far advanced in heresy, and familiar with the fragments of Old-Time literature, I say to hell with the laws that forbid most Old-Time books or reserve them to the priests!
Somewhere I have picked up the impudence to attempt writing a book for you, conceiving you out of nothing as I must because of the ocean between us and the centuries that you people, if you exist, have known nothing of my part of the round world. I am convinced it is round.
The novel chronicles Davy's adventures, as he flees his servitude and falls in with a wide variety of disreputable -- but intriguing! -- characters trying to make their way in post-apocalyptic North America. Throughout his tale, Davy takes the time to reflect on what he learned as a result of the episodes he describes. Though presented almost as an innocent child of nature, utterly lacking in sophistication or worldly wiles, like Huck Finn, Davy is in fact a keen observer of his fellow man, full of insights and occasionally wisdom. He's an extraordinarily well drawn character, as is the character of his eventual wife, Nickie, which is a testament to Pangborn's skills as a writer.

If Davy has a flaw, it's a "flaw" shared by many satirical and semi-satirical novels: one's enjoyment of it depends greatly on whose ox is being gored by its satire. The book, for example, presents religion in an extremely unfavorable light, more or less equating it with unthinking fundamentalism and, while Pangborn does a superb job of portraying the Holy Murcan Church and its beliefs, even providing decent context for them, I'll admit that I still felt at times that he was knocking down straw men rather than offering a trenchant critique of the excesses to which the devout are prone. But of course others may disagree and find Davy's take on religion to be spot-on while disagreeing with him on other points.

Regardless, I like Davy a lot and think it a fine addition to anyone's science fiction library, both as inspiration to post-apocalyptic gaming and simply as a good book in its own right. Edgar Pangborn is not exactly a household name, even among SF fans and that's too bad. As Davy shows clearly, he was a very talented writer who could not only spin a good tale but one who actually had something worthwhile to say through his stories.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly that pangborn deserves a much greater reputation than he has. Have you read The Company of Glory and Still I Persist In Wondering? You'd certainly enjoy them.

  2. One of my favorites. Another good title by him is West of the Sun, which explores the impact of a small group of stranded human colonists on an alien world on the local's society.

    It also bears mentioning that Peter S. Beagle is Pangborn's literary executor, and we have him to thank for the recent reprint of Davy. Hopefully more of his work will be back in print soon!

  3. thanks for this. I'd never heard of the book or its author, and will now seek it/him out.

  4. Interesting, the post-apocalyptic premise that dips into the religious and 'personal account' narration is something that really grips me. If you're up for a memorable challenge in this genre please, please, PLEASE check out Russell Hoban's 'Riddley Walker' - language has broken down and the whole thing is given in a pidgin English that's impossible to get comfortable with but is wholly absorbing. Think 'Stone-age Huck Finn takes pointers from Punch and Judy'.

  5. I'll second Riddley Walker, having just recently read it. It sounds very similar to this one, which I'll now have to hunt down...