ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Author John Wray didn't write his third novel in an office or in a library. He wrote the book called "Lowboy" on the New York City subway, where it's set. And for our series You Must Read This, Wray recommends a book that helps him take risks with his writing.
Mr. JOHN WRAY (Author, "Lowboy"): One of the most enduring mysteries I've encountered, both as a writer and as a reader, is the question of why certain novels speak to me on the most intimate level while other equally good books fail to cast a spell.
Whatever the explanation, the experience I'm trying to describe is the single greatest joy that reading gives me. I've never felt it more strongly than when I read the first few sentences of "Riddley Walker."
"Riddley Walker" by Russell Hoban is set in a post-apocalyptic England in which all but the most basic civilization has decayed. 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.
It begins with a bow-and-arrow hunt for wild boar and ends with a routine by Punch and Judy. What happens in between is a heroic quest like "The Lord of the Rings" or Harry Potter, although Hoban's book leads his hero into distinctly darker territory. There are no rings or magic wands in "Riddley Walker," just knowledge and brute strength.
This may sound like grim stuff, but the book's a delight. One of the defining features of the post-nuclear world Hoban has imagined is the fascinating, broken-mirror way in which the reader can recognize fragments of contemporary culture in the new Dark Ages of the 23rd century.
Place names are particularly fun: Sandwich has become Sam's Itch, Dover is now called Do It Over, and the Archbishop of Canterbury has been aptly re-named His 'Ardship.
I came across the novel in the 99-cent bin of a used bookstore in Texas when I was fresh out of school. And the world it created, futuristic and medieval at once, was the perfect escape from the drudgery of my first post-college job.
"Riddley Walker," like Joyce's "Ulysses" or Anthony Burgess's "A Clockwork Orange," takes a hammer to the staid, proper language most books are written in and builds something new and astonishing out of the pieces. These days, I keep a copy within arm's reach of my desk and open it at random whenever I get that slightly queasy feeling that my own writing has become a bit too safe.
Hoban's book, for me, is that rarest of creatures: a work of uninhibited fantasy that we can recognize ourselves in clearly and possibly even learn from. What could be more exciting than that?
SIEGEL: John Wray's latest novel is called "Lowboy." He was talking about the book "Riddley Walker" by Russell Hoban.
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