Edgar Pangborn is one of those early science fiction writers who has been a very quiet legend for decades. Most happily, Old Earth Books some years back undertook to reissue his novels, for which all of us can be very grateful.
There is a segment of literature known as “picaresque adventure” with examples ranging from Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Voltaire’s Candide to A. E. Van Vogt’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle and its descendant, Star Trek. (Picaresques have a great deal in common with odysseys, and, indeed, the two seem to overlap quite contentedly, so if I start talking about journeys, take it in stride.) On reading Pangborn’s Davy the one that comes most readily to mind is that towering giant of American literature, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Although comparatively brief, Pangborn’s minor classic has all the richness and flavor of its big brother.
It is also, in many ways, prescient: a post-Apocalypse America, divided into mutually suspicious territories, dominated by religious orthodoxy with a draconian reach. Davy himself is one of those characters I call “nature’s Innocents.” Like Huck Finn, he is truly innocent in the same way that a leopard or wolf is innocent, although certainly not naïve, and like Huck, his journey is not only from geographical territory to geographical territory, but across a landscape of moral questions, in search of something that can serve as Truth — because Davy is, as he puts it, a “mor’l” creature.
Like most picaresque novels, Davy is satire, of a very vivid and enjoyable sort: Davy is an astute commentator, learning the ways of the world and setting them against a frame of mind firmly grounded in common sense, and, as we learn, a great deal of compassion.
The publisher calls it a “classic coming-of-age novel,” and it certainly is that, but it is also much more. I have a suspicion, though, that many works of literature, especially in the twin realms of fantasy and science fiction, fall under that designation.
At any rate, Davy’s journey is perhaps more compelling than most, but one must also take into account that Davy himself is one of those literary creations for whom the epithet “character” is simply inadequate. He really is larger than life, one of those people whom you come to love in a very fundamental way, not only because of his wit and charm, rough as it may sometimes be, but because of his overwhelming humanity.
There’s not really a lot more to say about Davy, unless I want to hand you a plot summary, and frankly, you deserve the pleasure of discovering Davy’s adventures for yourselves. It’s a brilliant book, racy, pungent, tremendously affecting, and totally captivating, a masterpiece by one of science fiction’s most original and singular voices.
(Old Earth Books, 2004)