Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1954
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 might invite, for he is instead in pursuit of the buried secrets even beyond motive, the secrets of self and community. He understands Finn’s compulsion toward the forbidden: “Concealed things of this order are to him like fish lurking just beneath the surface of a placid river pool, endlessly fascinating and deeply desirable and capable of being read only by one who knows how to attend to their signs.”
The identity of the gruesome floater is just one of the questions that cry out for answers as the tale spirals toward lust and revenge, and Clinch skillfully balances recognition and suspense, enticing as he horrifies and seduces. As the narrative unfolds like “the river that in its infinite wisdom carries all things,” the ruthless scavenger who is neither stupid nor ignorant exhibits his snarl of bitterness and ambition. Running his trotlines, cadging drinks and favors, practicing random acts of terrorFinn is relentlessly selfish and frequently monstrous, but he has craft and, when necessary, an appalling charm. If his motives are seldom noble, his methods are impressive, and his self-loathing almostalmostwins him sympathy now and then. Clinch is careful to reveal his less feral side:As he lies and blinks and breathes, he lets the music wash over him as if in a dream, as if he is making it up himself or at least imagining it, as if some secret door to the shared consciousness and tradition and history of the river and its men white and black and mingled has opened itself to him and this is what has emerged.
Tormented with paternity, Finn strives to rebel against his own racist and merciless father (who “drags a divisive trail of misery behind him as a mule drags a plow”) as obsessively as he turns about and abuses Huck. Beyond the tyrannies of family, the novel is also about the horrors of slavery, devious sexuality, and the sources of identity, but more than anything else it is about how one unredeemed man damages everyone else, from his own kin to the women unlucky enough to cross his path, on his inexorable journey to self-punishment and destruction. Perhaps the most compelling invention in the novel is not that Huck (named “Huckleberry” for his skin color) is a mixed-race child or that the protagonist has murdered the mother, but that Finn is obsessed with the woman whose very identity is abhorrent to him but whose generous nature compels Finn to think she is “an astonishment and a mystery and a strange miracle.”
If the novel’s first big surprise concerns the identity of Finn’s “wife,” the second is a lie to his son that “rendered him [Huck] both cursed and cured,” the lie that he is white. Though that belief serves Huck in strange ways, one doubts that it is offered wholly in the spirit of blessing, as Finn is steadily revealed as “by nature cross-grained and rebellious.” In fact, one benefactor says of Finn, “The only way you’ll ever improve him is with a pistol.”
Although vibrantly suspenseful, Clinch’s narrative is always headedthrough reconciliations and retaliations, feral couplings and unholy alliancestoward that gunshot man whom Huck and Jim in Twain’s book find on the river surrounded by calico, whiskey bottles, and walls covered with “the ignorantest kind of words and pictures,” an autobiographical outsider art in which he scrawls his confession. His alternating needs to confess, to expiate, to escape, and to experience pleasure lead reflective readers to consider, “There but for fortune go I,” as Finn (whose name suggests humankind’s primitive origin) often seems an embodiment of everyone’s dark impulses.
Even a great novel will have flaws, and readers determined to correlate the original story and this new version may wonder why the early events of Huck’s life as presented in Clinch’s book have so little impact on the boy’s crucial moral decisions in Twain’s novel. While explanations are imaginable, there is a point at which, because of the intensity of character and plot, Finn becomes its own autonomous narrative, related to but not dependent on its predecessor or the questionable candor of the original’s adolescent narrator. If there are occasional unsuccessful scenes and flourishes of excess amid the usually brilliant rendering of earthy vernacular and the amphibious life of a river scavenger, they are forgivable, as Clinch seeks new and riveting ways to chronicle one man’s inadequate resistance to depravity.
In his New York Times Book Review assessment of the novel, the exemplary Twain scholar Ron Powers takes the book to task for replacing the garrulous original with an interiorizing and metaphor-gnashing demon. He further derides Clinch’s notions of nineteenth century diction and his debt to McCarthy, and no doubt this novel will continue to attract adversaries as well as partisans. In fact, while The Washington Post Book World named it one of the best five novels of 2007, The New York Times Book Review omitted Finn from its list of one hundred notable books from that year. While Powers’s ridicule of Clinch’s overuse of the phrase, especially on Finn’s tongue, “I know” is not without warrant, it is important not to overlook the epistemological inquiry and skepticism Clinch is coding into the book: What Finn does and does not knowhis confusion of knowing, suspecting, wanting, ignoring, denying, and desperately trying to “unknow”lies at the heart of his being.
This novel will stimulate and satisfy many Twain devotees and readers little acquainted with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though the latter pleasure may be somewhat diminished, as Finn is a slantwise meridian meant to augment and question the axis of Huck’s frontier world. In fact, what the two books together present is a marvelous study of the house of story and its many mansions. Despite their explicit and implicit differences, their varying trajectories and promises, the two novels offer similar views of the repulsive and the redemptive in the human enterprise. In both Twain’s and Clinch’s versions, mercy is precious, freedom evasive, temptation rife, and “outlaws” in skiffs trying to avoid the “civilized” world might be either heroic boys or rapacious villains. Readers will find some kinship, whether welcome or not, with all. If Clinch’s richly imagined realm is less culturally symphonic and varied than Twain’s, less satiric and downright humorous, this is a matter more of scope and focus than of depth. Finn is, by itself, a challenging and rewarding exploration of the human heart suffering essential conflicts. Consequently, many readers may find themselves returning to Twain not for the final word but simply to hear once again another side of the tale that Clinch has now transformed into an exciting conversation. From the ominous shadow that was Pap Finn, Clinch has fashioned a cursed, twisted man, and despite its harrowing attention to the local and particular, a beguiling tale of unforgettably rough beauty with universal implications and appeal.
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