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Finn by Jon Clinch

March 8, 2011

In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck’s father looms like a specter. In that book, we get glimpses of the rotten, abusive drunk he is, disallowing Huck’s education, kidnapping the boy and locking him in a cabin. “Pap,” as he is referred to in that book, is a racist and a low-life. But, as Jon Clinch tells it, we never knew quite how low the elder Finn was. That is the story of this book.

You have probably read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, maybe back in high school. The best way to read Finn, however, is to first read Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn again. There are too many moments of subtle overlap to rely on a vague recollection of Huckleberry Finn—scenes and descriptive details that anchor this book to Twain’s. Each of these moments of connection brings a pleasant revelation, a clue to the wider world these characters inhabit. The central link is a scene in Twain’s classic in which Huck and Jim, the slave with whom he is traveling, come upon a half-submerged home floating down the river. There are an odd assortment of artifacts in that home—two masks, a wooden leg, strange drawings on the walls and a body. This is the leaping off point for Clinch’s story—the story of how those things came to be there and the story of Huck’s father, referred to simply as Finn.

I approached this book with the greatest of skepticism. Writing a companion piece to one of the quintessential American novels is no small task. It takes some gall. And as I realized how dark this book would be, how it would not mimic or mirror Twain’s tone or technique, I grew more skeptical. This world had the same characters, but it felt like a twisted, parallel nightmare to Twain’s dream. Clinch’s tone is more akin to Cormac McCarthy. In fact, McCarthy’s Suttree—about a 1950s river rat near Knoxville, Tennessee—often comes to mind.

“For Finn,…the preserved huckleberries…speak also of innocence undisturbed, of childhoods spent around tables like this and around others less elevated and bountiful, of secrets buried beneath time and earth and flowing water; and even in the forced absence of whiskey a vision passes before his eyes unbidden not of snakes or of spiders but of the turgid Mississippi beneath his window on the Illinois side crossed and recrossed with a cumulative ghostly weavework of fishing boats’ accidental paths and steamboats’ cautious trajectories achurn with white foam beneath which and supporting all lies dark water and darker history.”

Twain’s dark history is one of racial intolerance; Clinch’s is a deeper, more sinister evil. We know from Twain that Finn has carved a cross into the bottom of his boots as a way to ward off the devil, but Finn roams the river and the woods like a devil himself, an evil spirit pressing his cross-marked boot print into the mud, each step thus laden with irony. He is a conflicted man. But whereas Huck is a good soul under a layer of river mud and mischief, every time Finn nears redemption, his true nature overtakes him—he is rotten to the core.

Finn begins with a body slowly making its way down the river, picked raw by the birds and fish. Soon after, we find Finn at the campfire of a blind bootlegger, deep in the woods, laying strips of human flesh on the fire, which he then feeds to the bootlegger. And so, from the very beginning we are shown just what Finn is capable of. Throughout the story, we witness the darker side of other characters from Huck Finn as well, most notably the charlatan king who has a very disturbing entanglement with Finn. It seems that just off-stage of Twain’s classic is a very dangerous place.

This book really began to grow on me when I finally accepted that Clinch was not trying to tell Twain’s story, and was not going to make an attempt to remain faithful to Twain’s voice. I began to get into the story itself and accept Finn on its own merits. After all, Finn is a very different character than Huck, so maybe it is only appropriate that his story have a different voice.

What I found most surprising, though, is how much my love of Huck grew while reading this book. He is a secondary character, but understanding where he came from and his resilience to it all, his ability to maintain boyhood innocence, makes him that much more likable. This is strange, again, because Clinch is altering my perception of an American icon, which he has no right to do. But it happened and I am glad it did. There is a scene in which Finn is on the river checking his lines after having been in prison for a year, and he looks up to the house to see his son, more grown than he had expected, standing on the porch with his famous straw hat. Finn is momentarily awestruck, and for the reader, the image of the fully realized young Huck, pre-adventures, standing in the morning air, is cinematic.

Clinch takes more liberties with the narrative than he might even be completely comfortable with—there is a rather defensive author’s note following the story. But once I got over the imposition at the center of this undertaking, I loved this book. It was disturbing and memorable and poetic, and had even a scene of humor or two—my favorite of which is a raucous night shared by Finn and a business associate of his father’s, in town from Pennsylvania. The unfortunate man, during a dizzying night of drinking, is shot in the shoulder by the blind bootlegger and, after a pathetic and gruesome attempt by Finn to perform an inebriated backwoods surgery with a hunting knife, bleeds out on the elder Finn’s front step. I guess humor is relative.

Taken simply as a work of fiction, Finn has strong legs on which to stand. As a new chapter in the story of Huckleberry Finn, it is remarkable. It gives us an ambitious and I think successful look into the shadows and, in doing so, shines an even greater light on the central character—because even though this is Finn’s story, the real hero will always be Huck.

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