- - Monday, November 25, 2019

For years, I was not a fan of “What if?” by which I mean works of the imagination that take actual events as the framework for a new tale. Examples include any book subtitled “What if JFK had lived?”, films like  Oliver Stone’s “JFK” and, more recently, “The Irishman,” which speculates on who killed Jimmy Hoffa, a film that Washington-based author and Hoffa death expert Dan E. Moldea says is bogus because the book it’s based on has a totally inaccurate premise.

But that hard line began to crack when I read Thomas Mallon’s novel “Watergate” and this author’s, Jon Clinch’s, fine novel “Finn,” which I reviewed in these pages several years ago. Thus converted, I now believe that if an author is talented enough, he or she can use any premise.

Having been a lifelong fan of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” I found Mr. Clinch’s treatment of Huck’s hapless, no-account father (whom Twain usually just called Pap) to be without a false note. So. I was not in the least surprised or put off, to see that once again, as his jumping-off point Jon Clinch had chosen characters originally devised by another literary giant. I thought, if anyone can do it, Jon Clinch can — and I was right.

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In “A Christmas Carol,” which Charles Dickens wrote in the 1840s, Jacob Marley appears only as a ghost, and only once, before going off to wherever ghosts go when not on haunting duty. Dickens’ list of “Characters” describes Marley simply as “A spectre of Scrooge’s former partner in business.”

Author Clinch, on the other hand, gives us a whole new and thoroughly caddish Jacob Marley, while letting Scrooge (called by his creator “a grasping, covetous old man”) almost completely off the hook in the way of good and evil.

Mr. Clinch twists Dickens’ original story even further by introducing love interests — ladies! — for both Scrooge and Marley. But only one man stays the course of true love, and far be it from me to tell you which one. Halfway through the novel, the mother of one girl chides her daughter for not being more, ah, receptive to the man’s courting, to which her daughter replies, “I want more than a match.” 

Mother: “I don’t mean just any match.” 

Daughter: “You were in a hurry to pair me off with [him].”

Mother: “[He] has funds.”

Daughter: “Funds are more common than character.”

Mother: “There’s nothing common about either one.” 

Daughter: “I suppose not, mother. But God willing, I shall find a man with a fair supply of both.” 

The central and obvious conflict of the novel involves Scrooge — a man whose very name now suggests miserly self-centeredness — having the wish for marriage and his intended’s stalling the proceedings until Scrooge gets entirely out of the business of providing ships that transport slaves from Africa to the United States and elsewhere.

The novel’s central action takes place in 1807, the same year that the British Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, forbidding such transport on British ships.

The less obvious — and more essential — conflict of the novel which runs straight through it from start to finish, is that Marley has been cheating Scrooge for as long as they have been in business together, robbing him blind as they probably put it in those earlier but not necessarily more honest times. The devilishly clever ways in which Marley pulls the wool over his older and trusting partner’s eyes is explained clearly, and make for fascinating reading.

Wisely, Jon Clinch, does not imitate Dickens’ prose style, but he does emulate it, though mirror might be the better word. For example, “What sort of Englishman is too busy for tea? The nose-to-the-grindstone sort, to begin with, the sort who goes ahead without connections. who makes something of himself without benefit of small talk or social lubrication or seeking of personal kindnesses. The Englishman too busy for tea is also likely to be solitary, even lonely. In other words, Ebenezer Scrooge.” 

Or, “The years at sea have served not to roughen Captain Balfour but to smooth him, to soften his sharp edges, to polish his every surface until he has acquired the soft pale gleam of the caved whalebone knife he carries in his pocket … obtained … on some Polynesian adventure …”

Making literary cameos are characters familiar to readers of Dickens, names like Micawber, and Cratchit, father and son, which lend verisimilitude. In the acknowledgments section, Jon Clinch offers a bow to the master by thanking: “Charles Dickens, who left enough holes in “A Christmas Carol” [so] that I was able to cook up an entire novel out of the missing bits.”

• John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).

• • •


By Jon Clinch

Atria Books, $27, 288 pages

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