Home » ARTSY FARTSY » JEAN SHEPHERD Gifting–Grab Bag 4 & (61) ARTSY Artists’ Books, Found in Translation: Riddley Walker

JEAN SHEPHERD Gifting–Grab Bag 4 & (61) ARTSY Artists’ Books, Found in Translation: Riddley Walker


I’m looking at this chromium-plated tie clip with that obsidian-colored pheasant rising from a field of purest green glass, and my eyes are bugging out with desire.  I don’t know whether they are bugging out with desire to own that clip myself, or to give that clip and somehow get back at what was the problem that caused me to come about in the first place.

Possible my old man had the same problem.  In fact I know he did!  Later on it came up.  I’ll never forget the time he beat me bowling, left-handed—and he was a right-handed bowler!  He did it just to show me who was boss.  I was working on a hook and he says, “I’ll beat you with a straight ball left-handed and give you thirty pins to spare.”  He beat me by forty-seven.

Well, I’m standing there in the jewelry department looking around, and I’m weighing one possibility against another.  I finally decide that maybe I’d better consider it for a while.

So I left the jewelry department and went fooling around in the model airplane department for about fifteen minutes for reasons of my own.  I was hung on escape even then—flight, get away from it all, fly, go!  I was looking at stick models—ROG—Rise Off Ground models.  There’s the hand-launched model and there’s the ROG model.  I’ll never forget the time I got to know a kid who held the North American Junior Title for endurance model for aircraft indoor ROG Division.  Talk about unsung heroes!

So I’m this kid, see, I’m going through the jewelry department of Woolworths.  It’s a funny thing—every time I see a Woolworths sign today I warm inside.  I can’t stay out of those places.  Yet I itch when I go in Sardi’s.  That’s the difference between a guy that makes it and others.  It really is, I’m telling you.  In this world you gotta get rid of your old skin!  If I could learn to walk with clear eye, with straight back, into Tiffany, by George, within two weeks I would be a Tiffany type.  When I think today of getting ahold of a tie clip, where do you think I head?  They’ve still got the chromium number down there with that obsidian pheasant rising from the field of purest green glass.

I suspect that low-level objects d’art never change.  I believe that in the days of the Roman Empire the slobs were buying plastic roses.  We never think of any slobs in those days—they were there.  If there’s anything that is universal, it is us—the Woolworths crowd.  Believe me, in an average year there are more people who walk in and out of those swinging doors of Woolworths on Times Square than ever see the inside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  And they go in for the same thing—to look at the wonders of civilization.




artsyfratsy 10010



On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear

and kilt  a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs

any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him

nor I aint looking to see none agen.

Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (published 1980) is a strange, perplexing, wonderful book. Written by an American author living in England, it entertains by its use of language and its picturing of a post-apocalyptic, post atomic war that had happened long ago.

On the Internet, “Learning to Read Riddley”

by Anna Lawrence Pietroni begins this way:

In Riddley Walker, thousands of years in our future, the people of Inland are trying to drag themselves out of the mud. Theirs is a post-nuclear society hungry for a story to make sense of what’s happened. They have no creation myth, only hellish narratives of destruction played out in the Eusa Story and an inherited, tentative dream-fragment of ‘boats in the air and picters on the wind’. English as we know it has been worn down and reconfigured, but while Riddley’s world may be stumbling through a new Dark Age, his language isn’t primitive. Riddleyspeak is direct, economical and energetic; we roadit, we meatit, we Norfed, we Eastit; a command is a ‘Do It’; leadership is ‘follerme’.

An Customer Review by E. Coaker in part comments: “Riddley Walker is a 12-year-old who faces the loss of his father and a series of mounting troubles by going on the road in search of meaning. He meets other outcasts and tries to understand what it was that made the former culture (our current culture) so powerful, and how it is that so much knowledge was lost. What passes for political leadership is a puppet show in the tradition of Punch and Judy,…”



which contains a short,

helpful guide to the language

by the author.

Another Customer Review, by Ted Byrd, comments in part: “The vernacular spoken in the book was so ingeniously devised that it constantly supplies information about this future humanity through its construction and usage.”

Another Customer Review, by A. J.: “The novel is admittedly difficult to read and understand; the words require extraordinary concentration to absorb what Riddley is trying to say, but after the struggle I was left with the impression of having just read a work of brilliance.

I’d originally read the front page of The New York Times’ Book Review Section, but didn’t rediscover the book to read it for the first time until decades later. It took me a while to get used to the language, but it’s worth it.

Inspired to do an “artists’ book,” a kind of translation, I extracted a number of prominent passages from the book and did graphic interpretations of 32 of them, each one on a separate, stiff board. On the back side of each I placed a portion of an important “story” found by Riddley’s people.

Since I was kid I’ve been saving files of stuff that grab my attention. Of course that includes articles about literature. I read with great interest the New York Times Book Review’s front-page review of Riddley Walker and, fascinated, cut and saved the review as well as other reviews of it. But I never got around to reading the book until a co-worker at the Museum of Natural History began promoting it among members of the Exhibition Department. Now I’ve read it twice.

Every once in a while I’ll find, in my files, something from decades ago. It makes my obsessive cutting and saving of all that browning and crumbling paper worthwhile! So it was with Riddley Walker.



In that June 28, 1981 Times Book Review Section, page 1, Benjamin DeMott wrote: “Set in a remote future and composed in an English nobody ever spoke or wrote, this short, swiftly paced tale juxtaposes preliterate fable and Beckettian wit, Boschian monstrosities and a hero with Huck Finn’s heart and charm, lighting by El Greco and jokes by Punch and Judy. It is a wrenchingly vivid report on the texture of life after Doomsday.”

A most incredible, entertaining, wondrous book.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

%d bloggers like this: