Davy (1964) is a wonderfully-written coming-of-age story set in a post-apocalyptic Northeastern United States 400 years after a brief nuclear exchange destroyed high-tech civilization, where life has become far more like the frontier days of the early US, with a scattered group of city-states dominated by the Holy Murcan Church. Far from what you might expect, it is a tale filled with humor, pathos, and charm. It is the narrative voice of Davy as he grows up from a simple boy to a randy young man that captures the reader from the start. His early days are dominated by wanting to escape from his bondsman life (in between freeman and slave), his desire for the tavern owner’s daughter, and his discovery of a golden horn in the possession of an innocent and ignorant mutant.
Taking this horn propels him on a series of adventures with deserters from a battle and he eventually joins an itinerant musician/entertainer group called Rumley’s Ramblers. Along the way he finds romance and love and a father figure, all told in a style reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer or JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The only other SF books this reminded me of in tone and setting were another lesser-known classic, Ward Moore‘s Bring the Jubilee (1953), which was an alternate history tale in which the South won the Civil War, and George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949), a pastoral post-disaster story set in the Bay Area after a virus wipes out much of civilization.
The details of Davy’s world are well-described, and the pervasive and menacing grip of the Holy Murcan Church and religion on this rural and scattered society are believably depicted. There is no question that Pangborn’s Davy is skeptical of organized religion and its role in crushing individual thought and dissent, especially in a world where literature is rare and the Church controls the thoughts of the common people. I found it a very refreshing contrast to that more famous post-apocalyptic tale, Walter M. Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, a book that I strongly dislike for its suggestion that the Catholic Church would be a protector of knowledge and morality in a dark post-nuclear world. They are both well-written books, but I wish that Davy could be read by everyone as a counter-argument to Canticle.
In terms of narrative voice, world-building, characters, and sheer beauty of writing, I would gladly give Davy 5 stars, but I’m forced to deduct 1 star simply because very little happens in his story. Essentially only three of four major events happen in the novel, and other larger events are only referred to in passing or in hindsight. Instead, Davy regales us more with his thoughts on life, women, religion, and his world, which are very entertaining, but not much else. I have a strong suspicion that this is why the novel didn’t get a better reception (although it was a Hugo Nominee for 1965). That, and naming a book Davy really doesn’t tell you what it’s about at all. Don’t let that dissuade you from reading it, though, it is a wonderful novel.