In Mark Twain’s great Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Pap is less a full-fledged character than the antic personification of menace. As Twain’s Huck says, “He was just all mud,” but from the opening appearance of his cross-marked boot print to the runaway Jim’s concluding revelation of Pap’s demise in the floating murder house, this pariah casts a shadow that chills the reader almost as much as it threatens Huck. At the same time, the focal character almost seems impotent, too whiskey-weakened and self-defeating to exact his vengeance upon anyone who is not completely powerless. Still, Pap has always provided readers with alluring mysteries: “How did this man become such a lowdown cur? How did he come to his end in that house and amid those peculiar props (cards, black masks, straw hat, women’s lingerie)? Why did the apple Huck fall so far from the tree? And how could such a mangy river rat even manage to sire a son?” Jon Clinch’s premier novel, Finn, sets out to provide a credible and compelling answer to these questions, and it succeeds splendidly because its gritty lyricism is at once authentic and original and because its engagement with the dark forces shaping both the wily Pap and the country that spawned him extends and even deepens the ways Americans ponder both the scoundrel of a classic book and the threads of villainy woven so intricately into the national fabric. As tempting as it might be to content oneself with such an exercise, Clinch has challenged himself further: He has created a world that is not quite Twain’s long-ago borderland and not quite a parallel one, but somehow, miraculously and dangerously, the elemental one humankind always struggles to understand.
Sena Jeter Nasland’s Ahab’s Wife (1999), Geraldine Brooks’s prize-winning March (2005), and Donald McCaig’s Rhett Butler’s People (2007), among others, have reinvigorated the project famously launched by the likes of John Gardner’s Grendel (1971) and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (pr. 1966): reminding readers that fascinating stories may be waiting to be summoned from the penumbral subtexts of canonical works. They have also demonstrated that being the second witness on the scene does not obligate a writer to give complete fealty to his antecedents. Clinch has taken the bold step of reimagining the antebellum conflicts along the banks of the Mississippi River to explore the heart of darkness that haunted Twain and troubles the world still, but unlike Twain, he is more concerned with those who fall prey to darkness than to those who ultimately elude it. A deep darkness it is, for Finn is no mere entertainment for the faint of spirit. The title character is a resourceful felon, a racist, a shrewd brute, and an incorrigible addict, and his story is not recounted in euphemisms or evasions. Amid the lies, lethal violence, and drinking bouts, the raw cunning of the talereminiscent at times of Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic territoriesmay invite some to avert their gaze, for as Jim says in the earlier book, “It’s too gashly.” Nevertheless, the eloquence and vivid poetry of the telling will never make the courageous reader wish for a gentler touch. Clinch has conjured a case resembling possession, and he has the gumption to let its madness reign.
In a nonlinear narrative that focuses on a central horrific act but encompasses a lifetime, the omniscient and eloquent narrator exposes Finn’s stealth, theft, pillage, gouging, arson, rape, and swilling of liquor as he strives to both escape and come to terms with the woman who enchants him and the father who spurns him. Along the way, Finn fishes, trades, scuffles, prevents a piracy, watches a steamboat explosion, assists a child molester, sulks in jail, taunts a distinguished free African American, and taints everything he touches. Slinking from crime to crime and woman to woman, always returning to the home he was cast out of and the river that heals him, Finn might almost be a member of William Faulkner’s rapacious Snopes clan, but his malice is more explicit, his meanderings less human and as full of twists and crosscurrents as the mighty river itself.
Any great novel achieves the force of a dream and casts its spell through fascinating actions, indelible characters, spellbinding language, and knotty concepts. This is the kind of book Clinch has wrought, as is evident in the opening passage when a clutch of boys idling along the “stands of willow and thick brushy embankments” discover a floating body “pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies.” Clinch is not inebriated by the potential for the Grand Guignol of means and opportunity such an image...
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