Davy: My favorite coming-of-age SF novel of all time

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDavy by Edgar Pangborn speculative fiction book reviewsDavy by Edgar Pangborn

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.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. Sandy Ferber /

    Sounds good, Stuart! I did enjoy Pangborn’s “A Mirror for Observers,” so have a feeling that this one might be good for me, too. And speaking of favorite “coming-of-age SF novels,” ever read Alexei Panshin’s “Rite of Passage”? I remember really loving that one, many years back….

  2. Sandy, this book is much better than A Mirror for Observers, I’m sure you’ll like it. And yes, Rite of Passage is on my slate for this year. I actually got the audiobook for $1.99 on Audible since I had the Kindle version already!

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