Past, Present, & Future

Riddley Walker

by Russell Hoban
Summit Books, 220 pp., $12.95

The Flute Player

by D.M. Thomas
Dutton, 192 pp., $8.95

The Country

by David Plante
Atheneum, 159 pp., $9.95

I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

Since Russell Hoban is an American—now settled in London—who has also written books for children, it seems natural enough that Riddley Walker should pick up where Huckleberry Finn leaves off:

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 befor 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 we wer then. Him on I 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 voices are very similar, at once young and knowing, innocent and disillusioned, the voices of survivors fumbling with a language they have never been formally taught.

Hoban, however, has transformed Huck in a minatory, contemporary way, much as William Golding, in Lord of the Flies, rewrote The Swiss Family Robinson. Riddley Walker is Huck Finn after an atomic disaster, mourning his jaunty self, stripped barer than he could ever have imagined, with no Judge Thatcher or Aunt Sally waiting in the wings to rescue him. He is also a creature of a distant and desolate future, though just how distant he himself does not know. The story he tells takes place at least two and a half millennia from now in the year 2347 OC, “which means Our Count.” When OC began is not certain. The date 1997 has been found cut into stone and in some unspecified year after that came Bad Time, the nuclear holocaust which poisoned the land and “made a hoal in what they callit the O Zoan”:

Then every thing gone black. Nothing only nite for years on end. Playgs kilt people off and naminals nor there wernt nothing growit in the groun. Man and woman starveling in the blackness looking for the dog to eat it and the dog out looking to eat them the same. Finely there come day agen then nite and day regler but never like it ben befor. Day beartht crookit out of crookit nite and sickness in them boath.

It was years before the survivors were organized enough to begin counting again. But dates no longer matter; they are known only to the men from “the Mincery”; Riddley and his like reckon by moons, which are adequate enough when full manhood begins at twelve and few people survive their thirties.

Since Bad Time they…

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