John Wray is the author of the novels The Right Hand of Sleep and Canaan’s Tongue. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Whiting Award in fiction, he was recently named one of Granta magazine’s twenty best American novelists under thirty-five. His new novel, Lowboy, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this coming March.
Most of the time, when a novel is forgotten, literary justice has been served: it’s atrociously written, or its attitudes have aged badly, or it’s simply a lesser imitation of a book that made the cut. Sometimes, though, a work of originality and genius slips inexplicably through the cracks, and it’s in search of these lost treasures – ‘black pearls’, as my friend Bill, an antiquarian book dealer, calls them – that poor sods like me spend their days in second-hand bookshops, blowing dust off of sun-bleached spines and flipping doggedly through voided library paperbacks we’ve never even heard of. Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, is a black pearl if there ever was one. Set in a post-apocalyptic England in which all but the most basic civilization has decayed, and written in a kind of radioactive pidgin that heightens both the absurdity and horror of the world it describes, the novel tells the story of the uneasy friendship between two adolescent boys – one a normal teenager, one a clairvoyant mutant – who happen, more or less by accident, on the secret of the atomic bomb. I won’t say more than that, but trust me, it’s a humdinger. In the words of Anthony Burgess, whose A Clockwork Orange is one of the only novels Riddley Walker owes a debt to: “This is what literature was meant to be – exploration without fear.”