Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn

Davy1A coming of age tale set a few hundred years after a nuclear catastrophe in post-Holocaust U.S., Edgar Pangborn’s 1964 Davy envisions an East Coast of ruined states (Connicut, Penn, Katskill), populated by suspicious villagers, roving caravans, and defected soldiers. Styled as a memoir, Davy, in his early adulthood, recounts life, love, and loss as he shucks his indentured servitude for a life of adventure, while his adulthood friends punctuate the narrative with occasional corrective, albeit sometimes annoying, footnotes.*

If not for the later timeline, this novel could almost be the slighter, less ambitious sibling of Leigh Brackett’s 1955 The Long Tomorrow. A couple hundred years apart, Pangborn’s post-apoc world closely resembles Brackett’s post-apoc world, with independent townships ruled by dogmatic varieties of religion (the Holy Murican Church in Davy), and explored through the eyes of young boys on the way to freedom and adulthood. The worlds are so similar, the boys could be contemporaries (although I don’t think Len and Esau would much care for Davy’s bawdiness).

Yet, Brackett dissects a reemerging world grappling with the sins of the past (technology, capitalism, crowding), whereas Pangborn uses his world as a backdrop to scorn religion and display the sexual revelries of a teenage boy. Where Brackett is deft, stimulating, and moving, Pangborn is humorous, but superficial and gaudy. “Women are people, too,” Davy reminds us at least twice, although his lady friends serve only as playmates for his “stallionizing.”

Several potentially powerful moments are deflated, due to the canned drama surrounding them. A born-again man, wrestling with his guilt as a sinner, could be powerful arc in the hands of some authors, but Pangborn’s presentation is hollow, matter-of-fact. Although intended as an emotional clincher in this tale, the born-again man’s ultimate fate, and the fates of others, are treated with empty dramatics, and have little impact on the reader. We move on.

Davy4But Davy’s matter-of-factness rescues what could be just another over-romantic adventure tale. Styled in a Vonnegut-like prose, though comparably slight in its social commentary, with statements like, “Anyone is likely to be cursed for smashing a makebelieve” [146], and “She had a good deal of faith in Sam’s judgment when Jed and God weren’t around” [147]. Religion and prudishness get their what-for in critical statements like, “Religion requires a specially cultivated deafness to contradiction which I’m too sinful to learn” [24]. In this blaspheming manner, Davy is more a sibling to Galouye’s Dark Universe, though not nearly so slick or subversive.

Most confounding, however, is Pangborn’s attention to insignificant events, while bypassing the more intriguing moments of Davy’s life. The narrative neglects Davy’s war years, glosses over his years with a father figure, but we learn firsthand details about his first sexual experiences. (Spoiler alert: First, they did it in her bed. Then they argued. Then they did it against the wall.) Sure, sex is very important to teenagers, but a runaway servant who is also a survivor of war should have more story to tell. Perhaps the three related follow-up books to this Davy series explore more of Davy’s intriguing time at sea.

Davy3Davy might seem like a minor footnote in the subgenre of post-nuclear event, Ruined Earth fiction, late to the table and with little new to offer, but Pangborn’s dry, humorous tone is entertaining enough to connect with casual readers. Although Davy is not the “lovely, rollicking, provocative and musical book” that Theodore Sturgeon promises in the cover blurb, it is funny and occasionally insightful.

 

Recommended only for SF completionists and adolescents looking for sneaky sex scenes in novels.

 

*I thought you loved footnotes in fiction. ~Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell**

** What? Books don’t talk to you?

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20 thoughts on “Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn

  1. The odd thing is, his other Darkening World novels/stories are way dark and grim, and I’m not sure any of them go back to Davy and his overactive libido… I think Pangborn grew more cynical after Nixon was elected, because his stories from the ’70s I’ve read have all been about government/religion oppressing somebody. (“Imagine a boot stomping on a human face—FOREVER.”)

    Recommended only for … adolescents looking for sneaky sex scenes in novels.

    Hrrm, maybe I should go back and re-evaluate why I liked some of these SF novels when I was younger… nah.

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  2. fromcouchtomoon says:

    hahaha… C’mon, you fall under the SF completionist category.

    “Imagine a boot stomping on a human face– FOREVER.” Wow, I love that. Pangborn does have an occasional knack for phrasing.

    There were a few scenes that had me laughing pretty hard. There is one completely irrelevant scene where Davy is drunk and shares his paranoia about bugs. Kind of hilarious.

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  3. fromcouchtomoon says:

    I should add that my husband has started calling Pangborn “Bangporn.” Not that he read the novel. But I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it first.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Widdershins says:

    Hmm … I’m tempted. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. SF COMPLETIONIST RIGHT HERE. And this is on my post-apocalyptic list of doom, so yeah, someday. I didn’t realize it was the first of three. Glad to hear from ironbombs that it gets darker later.

    I think I’ll read The Long Tomorrow first though.

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  6. Joseph Nebus says:

    I do, dimly, remember reading the book and thinking it was focused on the, well, boring parts of Davy’s life. But that might’ve been partly Pangborn mocking the standard post-apocalyptic novel and its usual plot structure.

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  7. As per usual, our reading interests diverge, but excellent review here, really very well written.

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  8. patcadigan says:

    Davy has always been one of my favourite books, from an author I wish were better known.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Hi Pat! Wow, thanks for commenting! I’m certainly curious about the later and darker Pangborn works that admiral.ironbombs mentions above. People don’t seem to talk about him as much as some of his other contemporaries.

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      • patcadigan says:

        I read his later stuff years and years ago and don’t remember it very well. But this has reminded me to get it out and have a re-read.

        And pardon the pedant in me but “Imagine a boot stamping on a human face––forever” is from 1984 by George Orwell. Which I should also re-read…

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Pedants are always welcome here. And now that you say that, it rings a big bell, although my re-read of 1984 was probably more than ten years ago.

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  9. […] started the month blogging about Edgar Pangborn’s raunchy post-apocalyptic tale Davy (1964). Pangborn’s voicing is full of that dry, witty stuff I like, but, although the world feels […]

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  10. […] on Zanzibar (1968). As for Bangporn, as he is now called in my house, well, I can see how Davy‘s themes of sexual liberation in a post-apocalyptic setting might have been tantalizing at […]

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