High praise: A murderous father, a famous son and was Huck black?

Jon Clinch's first novel, Finn, is a haunting, savage little wonder, remarkable for the scope of its ambition and the apparent ease with which it achieves it. Mr. Clinch takes on Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without supplication or imitation, fills in the grimmer, gothic corners of Twain's masterwork that Twain was constrained from exploring fully (race, sex, murder, madness, miscegenation) and does it all with a lyrical prose that is often spellbinding:

"He is between worlds, this boy.... He knows some things that he can never say, not even to himself...

[The other boys] find his dark history as dizzying as a leap from some great bluff into a Mississippi pool and his scrapes with his violent pap as thrilling as a narrow escape from Injun Joe's cave and his deep broad knowledge of woodsman's lore and slave's superstition as enchanting as a spell of protection against nightwalking spirits and werewolves, these boys forbidden to play with him yet drawn into his wake like needles to a lodestone, these boys whom he has trained well enough that at least one of them knows what he'll say before he says it and indeed has said it already, that the body is not a man's at all on account of it floats faceup."

Mr. Clinch's inspiration was not writing a prequel or sequel to Huck Finn so much as approaching the book sideways, more or less, with a tale that intertwines with Twain's. His main character is Pap Finn, Huck's brutal, drunken father, whom Twain left murdered, discovered by Jim and Huck (though Huck doesn't learn it until much later). Twain never explains the murder, but then, given Pap's vile character and the crime scene (his corpse is found in a flood-ravaged house floating down the river), there's power in Twain's suggestive shorthand. Obviously, Pap was shot while robbing the house or during some whiskey-fueled quarrel.

Mr. Clinch's elaborations on these suggestions do not disappoint. He gives Finn a weak-willed but more successful brother, an unforgiving judge of a father and a black woman as his sometime bedmate. The runaway slave, Mary, is a particularly rewarding addition and a particularly tricky one to pull off -- not in the conflicted reasons a spitting racist like Finn would be attracted to an African-American (yes, even loving her while loathing her and loathing himself) but the reasons she'd stay with such a person. And leave. Still, Finn's not the worst thing in the book. The utter horror and dream of power that is slavery -- to use people and dispose of them with impunity -- is chillingly embodied by a passing preacher, a nightmare version of the Duke or the King. And then there's always the Judge, in whom self-satisfaction meets the iron force of law. As fierce as Finn is, he's still vulnerable -- he's not the monsters these two men are.

Most reviewers, it seems, have not picked up on the fact that in taking the audacious step of making Mary Huck's mother, Mr. Clinch is spinning off from the famous case made by Shelly Fisher Fishkin in Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices. (He cites her book in an author's note at the end, but for those familiar with the study, the idea jumps out once Mary is introduced and we realize where Mr. Clinch is going with her.)

In creating Huck's dialect and story-telling style, Prof. Fishkin argues, Twain was partly inspired by a young black boy, a storytelling performer. Therefore, Huck wasn't black, per se, but in effect, racially mixed. And seeing as Huck Finn is often cited as the great origin of our distinctively American literature, this only adds further credence to Southern historian C. Vann Woodward's assertion that all Americans, at least in their culture, are mulatto. To reverse the process, as it were, and find race-mixing at the very source of our literature is an ingenious inspiration, to say the least. Mr. Clinch even finds Huck's mixed-race nature a source for his name, the different color of his skin -- Huckleberry.

Intriguingly on this point of voices, Mr. Clinch generally does not quote Twain's own characters' speech patterns -- he's not going to win that competition -- and anyway, Huck himself, naturally enough, is something of a sideline to Finn's main story, so his singular narrative voice is not duplicated. But in adopting a third-person narrative, Mr. Clinch does create prose that evokes 19th-century Biblical oratory and period Missouri idiom while being purely modern. He may follow Cormac McCarthy in this, but it's still beautifully fresh, vivid, succinct, and even eerie when Finn is clearly losing his mind from guilt and delirium tremens, alone in his white room scrawling on its walls, in the house that will become his coffin.

As we learn, Finn was a wild child himself, the genetic source for Huck's own rambunctious, rebellious nature, but it's Finn's adult affair with a black woman that truly enrages his unyielding monster-father. And this rejection helps ignite some of Finn's belligerent sense of victimization and entitlement that's evident in Twain's novel. Turning back the entire narrative to make race-mixing key factors in Finn's "back story" is quite effective. The entire novel becomes like a noose that tightens around his tragic, twisted motives. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the novel begins and ends with a body, different bodies, floating in the river -- as if the Mississippi at flood stage enacts its own implacable brand of blind justice.

A sidenote: In its Southern gothic dementia -- the violence, passion, lyricism and misery -- the novel reminds me occasionally not just of Cormac McCarthy but of John Wray's Canaan's Tongue. For those who might be interested.

But purely on its own, Finn is a remarkable debut.

March 2, 2007 8:57 AM | | Comments (1)



Thanks for the review! Are you familiar with Jonathan Arac's critique of Fishkin in Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target? I'm in the midst of responding to his larger argument over at Citizen of Somewhere Else (yes, 10 years later; academics aren't known for moving fast!)--this post is a place to start if you're interested. I will definitely have to check out this novel--thanks again!


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