Davy by Edgar Pangborn

At the urging of several people whose taste I respect, I recently read Edgar Pangborn’s 1964 postapocalyptic novel, Davy. I’m not sorry that I did, but I can’t say that I truly enjoyed the book.

Here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth—entirely subjective, I admit.

The reviews of Davy on Amazon raised my expectations too high, perhaps. The Amazon reviewers claim that the book is as good as Huckleberry Finn or Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and although the book is good and admirable, it is not on par with those two great works.

Certainly, Davy is an ambitious, praiseworthy novel. I appreciate the book’s structure, which interweaves two chronological narratives—one describing events that took place in the past, when the narrator was entering adolescence, and one that describes more recent events taking place as the middle-aged narrator writes of his adolescence, complete with footnotes from his current middle-aged companions. I admire the narrator’s changing voices; he sounds believably like a postapocalyptic adolescent and, later, like a middle-aged introspective man. There’s clever wordmangling that helps set the tone and reinforce the postapocalyptic worldbuilding, such as the remnants of current New England geographical terms in the postapocalyptic names Katskil, Vairmant, and Conicut, or the riff on “demoralized” on pages 216-217, which Davy renders as “demarbleized,” then “demarvelized,” and finally “demongrelized.” And the characters that Davy meets on his journey are, for the most part, round and descriptively detailed.

But the world that’s built in this book feels more like one that belongs in a magic-less fantasy than in postapocalyptic science fiction—like an early America ruled by a dominant and technophobic Church, with no special insight into what that means for the inhabitants. The book’s intended indictment of that technophobic Church isn’t unique: children die, ignorance abounds, and mudgrubbing is the order of the day.

The plot is episodic and doesn’t build toward anything in particular until the last fifty pages or so, when the two lines of narrative coalesce. Yes, the boy learns lessons that that his grownup self comments on explicitly, but those comments—like the indictment of the Church—aren’t particularly insightful.

Maybe my complaints about lack of insight—and, hence, my disappointment in the book—is that I’m a fifty-year-old woman? The people I know who recommended the book to me are all older men who read it when they were young; I can see how Davy would be most meaningful and titillating and memorable to a young man who’s sorting out who he is and how best to rebel against authority.

Or maybe it’s that the book feels somewhat old-fashioned: its attack on the Church and politics is relatively gentle, restrained, moderate—rather simple, as if merely complaining about the Church and politics is extraordinary and shocking and, thus, sufficiently observant. And the sex is tame by current standards—“bawdy” reviewers call it, an appropriately old-fashioned word.

I wouldn’t complain (much) about the foregoing if I had been caught up in Davy’s emotions. But I wasn’t caught, not as I am caught by Huck Finn’s life and emotions. I sat back and engaged dutifully with Pangborn’s intellectual exercise, but the book didn’t carry me away.

And even the intellectual exercise was somewhat disappointing (again, perhaps because of the expectations created by the reviews). The book lacks the deeply complex layering of myth and Church that exists in A Canticle for Leibowitz. And it lacks the “what happened” piecing together of clues embedded in deteriorated language that I enjoy in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker—a book I’d compare it to before I compared it to Miller’s Canticle.

So, in sum, I am glad that I read Davy, because now I can check it off my list of Significant Books That It’s Good to Know About. But reading it felt like duty, not like joy.

What do you think?