"HE WERE TALKING so many levvils at 1ce I dint all ways knows what he meant realy I wisht everything wud mean jus only 1 thing an keap on meaning it not changing all the time."

Many readers on opening Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban's extraordinary combination of quest romance, science fiction, linguistic experiment, and theological speculation, may feel the same confusion as its narrator-hero. For Hoban's is a complex story, being largely about how we interpret language and understand ourselves, "what the idear of us myt be." Suffused with melancholy and wonder, beautifully written, Riddley Walker is a novel that people will be reading for a long, long time.

The world, or rather what's left of it, has been bombed back into the Stone Age. At least 2500 years after the "1 Big 1," (which occurred in 1997), people in England are still living in small groups, foraging across the burned-out land around Canterbury, once the location of a nuclear facility, and just beginning to farm again. Intelligence has declined, literacy persists only among certain shamans, man's most feared enemies are the dogs that roam in packs of 40 or more, patiently waiting for the moment when they can rip throats and genitals. ("Whats a dog? Its some thing you can't get close to.") Even the weather seems to be uniformly bleak and desolate, either "a thin grey grizel" or rains "as took the hart and hoap out of you" and "made you feal like all the tracks in the worl wer out paths nor not a 1 to bring you back."

Virtually all knowledge of science, religion and history has been lost.

Virtually, but not quite all. Shadows and shards of the past survive in songs, legends, and puppet plays. One troubling myth describes the fall from unity with Nature when men and women get "clevver." "Counting counting they wer all the time. They had iron then and big fire then had towns of parpety. They had machines et numbers up. They fed them numbers and they fractiont out the power of things. They had the Nos. of the rainbow and the Power of the air all workit out with counting which is how they get boats in the air and picters on the wind."

They most pervasive myth, however, is the sacred Eusa Story. Hoban dextrously transforms the Christian legend of St. Eustace -- who was converted by a vision of Christ standing with arms outstretched between the antlers of a stag -- into an allegory of atomic energy. According to the oral tradition, a scientist named Eusa "smaulert" himself so that he could track down the "the Little Shynin Man the Addom" and force him to reveal the number of the Master Chaynjis, the 1 Big 1. He accomplishes this, but only after tearing the Little Shynin Man in two, releasing vast power.

At the novel's beginning, 12-year-old Riddley Walker becomes the new "connexion man" for his settlement after his father's death, his task being to interpret the semi-religious puppet plays about Eusa performed by traveling showmen. Once initiated as a "connexion man" he grows increasingly sensitive to supernatural forces. After a series of omens, "blips and syns," culminating in the discovery of a disquieting hand puppet representing the unfamiliar figure of Punch, Riddley abandons his people and goes out "roading" into the storm and wilderness. Following the Black Leader of the Bernt Arse dog pack, he frees the imprisioned Ardship of Cambry, a blind, almost faceless psychic. With Lissener, as the Ardship is also called, Riddley finds himself involved in an attempt to rediscover the 1 Big 1, inadvertently bringing on a power struggle between the coutry's two most powerful chiefs, the Pry Mincer and Wes Mincer of Inland. That struggle ends with a bang when the components for gunpowder, the 1 little 1, are desciphered from an old riddle. Throughout this time, Riddly undergoes progressively more intense mystical experiences, gradually coming to realize "what we ben! And what we come to!"

What is marvelous in all this is the way Hoban makes us experience the uncanny familiarity of this world, while also making it a strange and animistic place, where words almost have a life of their own. "What ben makes tracks for what will be. Words in the air print foot steps on the ground for us to put our feet into." Hoban achieves this power largely through the book's transcription of Riddley's speech, at once degenerate modern English and a supple poetic tongue all its own, reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon in its rhetorical formality, rhythms and music.

Consider "Fools Circel 9Wys," which at first seems only a children's rhyme, but gradually assumes increasingly disturbing significance: "Horny Boy rung Widders Bel Stoal his Fathers Ham as wel Bernt his Arse and Forkt a Stoan Done it Over broak a boan Out of Good Shoar vackt his wayt Scratch Sams Itch for No. 8 Gone to senter nex to see Cambry coming 3 times 3 Sharna pax and get the poal When the Ardship of Cambry comes out of the hoal"

What does all this mean? The name of the rhyme suggests both a fool's circle and a full circle. Most of the capitalized words are the distorted place names of Kent, now known as the Dead Towns: Herne Bay, Whitestable, Faversham, Folkestone, Dover, Sandwich, Canterbury. Following a kind of folk etymology, they have lost their abstract quality and regained a new literalness, one appropriate to man's return to savagery. The Ardship of Cambry is both the hardship and the Archbishop of Canterbury, a figure reviled and revered. "Vackt his wayt" breaks up a long word -- evacuate -- into simpler parts. Another common linguistic twist, the transposition of sounds, appears in "Sharna pax" -- sharpen an axe.

This corrupt English, a language of compressed, unexpected power, gives the book its particular flavor and excitement. "Deacon terminations," "gallack seas," "party cools," "Saul and Peter" transform the forgotten into the familiar. Scientific jargon, such as "axel rating the Inner G," also crops up regularly: In his desperate search for the technological knowledge to help humanity get going "frontways" again, the Pry Mincer explains that "We've got to work the E qwations and the low cations we've got to comb the nations of it. . . We ben diggin in the groun for it we ben spare the mending we ben tryl narrering for it we ben asking roun the circel for it."

"Asking roun the circel for it." After freeing Lissener, Riddley learns that "Fools Circle 9wys" describes an actual practice. It seems that following the catastrophe some of the "Puter Leat" (computer elite) employed by Eusa were kept alive as sacred monsters, lessons for the future: because they worked close to the Power Senter they were the most genetically injured, such that all of their descendants are mutants and grotesques. Every 12 years the Ardship, leader of these Eusa Folk, ritually repeats a trek around the Dead Towns actually undertaken by Eusa during the "Bad Times." At each stop on that circuit he is questioned by the Pry Mincer about the Master Chaynjis -- matter transformation, but also the spiritual ordering of the universe (with perhaps a hint of our Master Jesus); at journey's end, when the Ardship returns to Cambry, his head is chopped off, as was Eusa's in "time back way back."

Now Hoban has so contrived it that this circuit and return to the Power Senter reflects at once: 1) a children's ring game; 2) the "historical" travels of Eusa; 3) the actual trials of the Ardship of Cambry; 4) the anthropomorphized descriptions of a particle accelerated in a cyclotron and then shot back into a central core; and 5) the past and future movements of Riddley himself -- he is the horny boy, who has rung the widders bel, inadvertently killed his father, etc. Yet only as the novel progresses do these meanings accrue, causing every word to shine out ever more brightly in several directions. The reader learns and solves the riddles along with Riddley.

Nearly all the important verbal elements of Riddley Walker undergo a similar crystalization. A key phrase like "Hart of the Wood" possesses a rich alchemical equivalence, meaning the stag of the forest (where Eusa discovered the Littl Shynin Man), the center of the stone wood at Cambry -- apparently the pillars of Canterbury Cathedral -- where Riddley experiences a spiritual awakening; the heartwood of a tree (used in making "chard coal" one of the three ingredients for the 1 Littl 1); the heart of the would, of "the wanting to be," that yearning for unity that appears on many levels throughout the novel (and much of Hoban's mature work); the hearth in the wood, where Riddley leads the blinded Pry Mincer after the explosion of the 1 Littl 1; and even perhaps the heart of the word -- a simultaneous suggestion of Christ and the essence of language.

The power emanating from Cambry, around which the action like the characters revolve, is both atomic and religious, the two having become intertwined. In Riddley's climatic mystical vision, he falls to his knees, overwhelmed by the spiritual authority of Canterbury; there he feels how much humanity has lost, how much man still yearns for an end to "2ness," how much he needs to reunite the divided Addom:

"Them as made Canterbury musve put ther selfs right. Only it dint stay right did it. Somers in betwean them stoan trees and the Power Ring they musve put ther selfs wrong.Now we dint have the 1 nor the other. . . May be all there ever ben wer just only 1 minim when any thing cud be right and that minim all ways gone before you seen it."

At the book's end, Riddley Walker is still wandering, now a showman himself, not of Eusa, but of a rediscovered Punch and Judy. Punch he has learned, is the "oldes figger there is. He wer old time back way way back long befor Eusa ever been thot of. Hes so old he cant dy." Somehow Punch brings a new spirit into the world, as does, of course, the rediscovery of gunpowder. "Life aint qwite as simpl as it used to be."

Just as Riddley seeks to make connections, to find meaning, so readers of Hoban's book must explore the layering of its words and events. Back and forth goes the hermeneutic circle -- Riddley and reader, each questing through a forest of symbols: "Walker is my name and I am the same. Riddley Walker. Walking my riddels where ever theyve took me and walking them now on this paper the same."