By Jon Clinch
Random House, $23.95, 287 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA
Did you ever wonder about the families of some of literature’s most memorable characters? Say Ahab’s mother? Or Holden
Caulfield’s own kids? Or Emma Bovary’s quiet twin? Normally, I’m put off by writers who play that game, and downright annoyed by authors who want me to meet JFK at age 75, but Jon Clinch’s “Finn” is a shining exception.
But I shouldn’t kid around, because this is in no way a frivolous exercise on the part of the author. Random House’s debut novel of the spring, it’s a serious work of fiction, a book so fine you’d think it was written by a seasoned novelist at the top of his powers. It’s by turns funny and profane, gross and poetic, informative and mystifying. It’s the real deal.
The title character is Huckleberry Finn’s no-account father, a most singular man who chooses to go by his last name. When people call him by his full name, he corrects them, bluntly stating his preference for just “Finn.” As the book opens, he has done something so vile that it resonates throughout, and sets the tone of, the whole book. But having set Finn up as a monster, Mr. Clinch shows us, bit by bit and snapshot by snapshot, if not what made him what he is, then what he believes did so, and what he himself thinks about his sorry state.
In this version, Huck’s father is every bit as bad as Mark Twain suggests in “Pap’s” few, but so memorable, appearances in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Not just a shiftless drunk but also a bigot, a thief and even a murderer, he is determined not to let his son rise above the sorry station to which he has so willingly lowered himself. Nonetheless, he stands for all that the country was as it poised, about to rip itself apart, in 1861, and also for the decency of its longings.
Given the central conceit of this book, it would be so easy to hit a false note, or a series of false notes, and ruin the whole tale, but Mr. Clinch (who, we are told, was once a teacher of American literature but now makes his living in advertising) never falters. The Finn we meet on page one remains the same fascinating — and most repellant — character throughout the book.
Interestingly, Huck is only a minor character. The fully drawn characters are Finn himself (the most real and believable of the lot); Mary, the black woman with whom he produces Huck (didn’t know Huck Finn was a mulatto, did you?); a blind bootlegger named Bliss, from whom Finn steals and with whom he drinks; and his unforgiving father and sickly brother, both of whom are lawyers.
Indeed, the father is a pillar of the community, probably the pillar, but definitely not a beloved one. So filled with anger at his son for turning out so badly, he’s downright vicious toward Huck, his only grandchild. The Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) would have loved Judge Finn, a man who could give rectitude a bad name.
In an author’s note at the end of the novel, Mr. Clinch says the events of this book have been “fitted meticulously into and around” Pap’s appearances in Twain’s masterpiece, averring that “the elements of his character — his drunken-ness, his cruelty, his virulent and overwhelming hatred of blacks — are all drawn whole from Twain’s novel …” He also explains that making Huck a mulatto was not unprecedented, citing “Was Huck Black?” a monograph by Stanford Professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin. He also reminds the reader of Mark Twain’s fondness for characters with double identities. It’s intriguing food for thought.
The power of the novel is not, however, in the novelty or brashness of the idea, but in all the usual reasons why a novel is strong — characterization, sense of place, beauty and truth. All of these strengths coalesce to provide a powerful and lasting impact. And it’s so beautifully written.
Here’s a sample of the prose, a passage about Mary, Finn’s mistress and the mother of Huck: “[H]e watches her in the manner of a naturalist making observations, as if fearing that at any moment she could molt and reveal some alternative self beneath her skin, some raw beast damp and ready for transform-ation into a different sort of creature altogether … There is about her a grace and an ineffable sadness that conspire to retard her movements and make them into something musical, transforming every act into a kind of prayer or languorous meditation.”
Here’s another example: “Down the frozen center of the street he marches like some mud-formed golem drawn by revenge or moonlight until the lamps of a tavern catch his fierce eye and he turns at once, lighter than any observer might guess, and mounts the steps to the door and enters into the place accompanied by snow and black wind.” I don’t know what black wind is, but when I read that I felt it. The novel abounds, no, it overflows, with such writing.
For all the fine prose, the author does not forget to move his story forward. Finn is obsessed with the idea of getting his hands on his son’s $6,000, Huck’s share of the gold he and Tom Sawyer found in a cave, and most of his movement is toward that end. When he learns of the money, Finn says, “Looks like I’ll be getting my inheritance after all, don’t it? Only it come upstream instead of down.”
But his journey covers so much more ground, from the virulent racism of the day, which Finn embodies, to the agony of father-son relationships gone bad, and especially to man’s ability to make a mess of things, things like life. And, as in the novel it emulates, almost all the action takes place on or near the Mississippi River, that grand and terrible symbol of America, then and now.
Jon Clinch owes the idea of his central character to the book by Mark Twain, but what he has made of that character is entirely original, very powerful and simply wonderful. I can’t wait to see what this writer does next.
John Greenya is a writer living in Washington, D.C.
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