Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.
The following review appeared 15 April 2007 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2007 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has long been regarded as a disturbing book and rightly so. It uses language with which we are not always comfortable and exposes truths that we may not wish to hear. Moreover, it does these things in subtle and ironic ways that we cannot always be sure we understand. And even when we think we understand what the book is saying, other readers may not see it as we do. This very lack of agreement on the book makes it even more disturbing. Is Huckleberry Finn a racist book or an antiracist book? Regardless of our own opinions, there is still no consensus on that fundamental question. Is it possible that the novel is both racist and antiracist at the same time? That in itself is yet another disturbing thought.
For a work of literature to be disturbing is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing. After all, if everyone agreed on what Huckleberry Finn says, would people still debate the issues it raises as they do now? Probably not. In any case, the book is likely to remain controversial, and every few years something happens to stir up new interest in it and ignite a fresh debate. Tempers may flare and charges and countercharges may be leveled, but when the debate cools down, we generally feel invigorated, and Huckleberry Finn emerges stronger than ever.
We now seem to be on the threshold a new debate about Huckleberry Finn. This time, controversy is mounting over another disturbing novel that has a strong affinity to Huckleberry Finn -- Jon Clinch's Finn. Random House released the book officially in February, but thousands of advance copies circulated for months before then. A good number of reviews have been published, and dozens of readers have weighed in on sites such as Amazon.com. Judging by reviews, reader responses, and word of mouth, Finn is certain to become controversial for many of the same reasons that Huckleberry Finn has been -- its raw language and its disturbing exploration of sensitive racial issues. It is also generating controversy for its often gruesome depictions of violence and depravity. However, something else is going on, as well. That something is concern that Clinch may be stepping on the wrong toes. His crime: using characters and episodes from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.
Magazine and newspaper reviews of Finn have palpably twittered in anticipation of the impact the book will have in academic circles. For example, the Los Angeles Times reviewer suggested that "the central academic achievement of Finn will be to transport the world's Twain scholars into a tizzy." Reviewers sniff trouble brewing, and they may be on to something. Huckleberry Finn is the sacred scroll of the Mark Twain world, and true believers do not take kindly to seeing their scriptures tampered with.
The first thing to make clear here is that Clinch's novel is not a reworking of Huckleberry Finn but rather something more like an extrapolation. The "Finn" of Clinch's book is not Huck but his father, Pap Finn. Clinch borrows most of the incidents in Huckleberry Finn involving Pap, fleshes them out, and adds a stunningly rich and complex back story that encompasses Pap's entire life and even provides a grandfather for Huck who may be more terrifying than Pap himself. Clinch tells Pap's story in a highly stylized third-person voice that bears no resemblance to Huck's narration of his own story. Indeed, there is no sign that Clinch is in any way trying to imitate Mark Twain's style. Moreover, to put the relationship of Clinch's book to Huckleberry Finn in perspective, it is helpful to remember that everything that happens to Pap in Huckleberry Finn occurs within that book's first nine chapters. Little or nothing that happens in the remaining 34 chapters of Huckleberry Finn has any real bearing on Finn, except, perhaps, the fact of Huck's ignorance of his father's death.
The English poet W. H. Auden once described Pap Finn as "a greater and more horrible monster than almost any I can think of in fiction" and expressed his satisfaction that Pap is eventually murdered in Mark Twain's novel. Clinch's Finn may be even worse than the monster Auden envisaged. One of the most impressive things about Finn is how much mileage Clinch gets out of Huckleberry Finn's meager passages about Pap. Almost everything Clinch has Pap say and do seems consistent with the character whom Mark Twain created. That says something about Mark Twain's ability to make even a minor character a living, breathing figure. However, Clinch develops Finn much further.
Finn can be read in a variety of ways, with and without reference to Huckleberry Finn. Clinch's novel tells a story so compelling that it is possible to regard it strictly on its own terms; however, readers intimately familiar with Mark Twain's novel will naturally have a difficult time seeing past Finn's literary forebear. It would be only fair if such readers were to open their minds and approach Finn as an interpretation of Huckleberry Finn, much as they would read any literary analysis of the novel. That approach to Finn provides stimulating speculations on questions about Pap's back story: How did Pap get to be the monster that he is? What feelings does he have toward Huck? Who was Huck's mother, and what kind of relationship did Pap have with her? What kinds of relationships did Huck have with his father and mother? Such questions are endless. The answers that Clinch provides are unlikely to satisfy everyone, but does that matter? The exciting thing is that Clinch is forcing us to reconsider such questions and to think through their implications in Mark Twain's novel. Does the fact that Clinch does this in fiction make his book any less valuable than a nonfiction book that addresses similar questions? Finn is a marvelous book in its own right, but what it does to force us to reconsider Huckleberry Finn makes it more marvelous still.
Finn is a far darker work than Huckleberry Finn and has little in it that might be considered humorous. It does, however, provide a great deal of fun by filling in many of the blanks that Mark Twain left in his own novel. Consider, for example, the episode in Huckleberry Finn in which Huck escapes from Pap's cabin and fakes his own death. How many people who read Huckleberry Finn give any thought to how Pap would respond to Huck's hoax? Is it reasonable to assume that he would buy Huck's faked evidence? And, if he doesn't buy it, how would he react? After reading Finn's account of that episode, you may find possible Mark Twain's version less plausible than you did before.
Another fascinating episode from Huckleberry Finn that Finn develops further is Pap's encounter with St. Petersburg's new, reform-minded judge -- the episode that ends with Pap wrecking the judge's guestroom and moving the judge to suggest that the only way to reform him is "with a shot-gun." Finn takes the reader into the judge's home, describes Pap's dinner with the judge's family in great detail, and provides the sordid details of exactly how Pap loses his new coat and breaks his arm. Another wonderful extrapolation recounts Pap's actual meeting with the black college "p'fessor." These moments alone make Finn a joy to read, and they are typical of many episodes in the book that seem more believable than their parallels in Huckleberry Finn.
Finn is a haunting and extraordinarily complex novel with a nonlinear narrative structure that demands close attention to every passage, If one reads it carelessly, it would be easy to lose track of connections among characters and events. At the same time, however, the book's complex structure makes for immensely rewarding surprises, as its pieces fall together. In addition to being a character study, Finn has many elements of a mystery novel. Indeed, its very premise is based on a mystery posed in chapter 9 of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck describes how he and Jim discover a dead man in the frame house that floats down to Jackson's Island. That passage (which forms the prelude to Finn) is worth quoting in its entirety:
'It's a dead man. Yes, indeedy; naked, too. He's shot in de back. I reck'n he's ben dead two er three days. Come in, Huck, but doan' look at his face-it's too gashly.'
I didn't look at him at all. Jim throwed some old rags over him, but he needn't done it; I didn't want to see him. There was heaps of old greasy cards scattered around over the floor, and old whisky bottles, and a couple of masks made out of black cloth; and all over the walls was the ignorantest kind of words and pictures, made with charcoal. There was two old dirty calico dresses, and a sun-bonnet, and some women's under-clothes, hanging against the wall, and some men's clothing, too. We put the lot into the canoe; it might come good. There was a boy's old speckled straw hat on the floor; I took that too. And there was a bottle that had milk in it; and it had a rag stopper for a baby to suck. We would a took the bottle, but it was broke. There was a seedy old chest, and an old hair trunk with the hinges broke. They stood open, but there warn't nothing left in them that was any account. The way things was scattered about, we reckoned the people left in a hurry and warn't fixed so as to carry off most of their stuff.
The passage from Huckleberry Finn has long made readers wonder what happened inside that house before it floated down the river and who the dead man was. When readers reach the final chapter of Huckleberry Finn and learn, along with Huck, that the dead man was his father, they inevitably wonder what Pap was doing in that house, who killed him, and why. No answers are to be found in Huckleberry Finn. Finn not only explains every item in that house that Huck mentions but also builds compelling explanations of how Pap met his end there and even why the house floats down the river. Those explanations are astonishing. However, the path readers must follow to reach them is not a pleasant one.
Finn presents other mysteries, too. Indeed, the book opens with the striking image of a decayed body floating down the Mississippi that is discovered by boys. Is it the same body that is found floating in chapter 3 of Huckleberry Finn? Finn seems never to identify its own floating body explicitly, but the body's identity gradually emerges through a series of grisly and often shocking revelations. Such revelations seem much more powerful -- and satisfying -- when they are made through indirection than they would be if the truth were simply stated outright. Even the fact that Finn's son is Huck is not revealed immediately when the boy is first introduced.
So far, this discussion of Finn has skirted what may be the book's single most-controversial aspect. Readers who would prefer to discover it themselves in the novel, instead of here, are advised to stop reading this review at this point. However, since most previously published reviews of the book have discussed this subject openly, you are probably already aware of to what this "spoiler alert" alludes: viz., that Finn makes Huck a "mulatto." A very light-skinned mulatto, to be sure, but a mulatto, none the less.
The Pap Finn of Finn is a "nigger"-hating racist who is obsessed with the beauty and grace of black women, and that obsession ultimately leads to his downfall. Huck's mother, a young former slave named Mary is a literate and refined woman who recalls Pudd'nhead Wilson's Roxy in her devotion to her son. Mary's love for Huck is so great that she is willing to make any sacrifice to ensure his future welfare, even if that means renouncing her motherhood so that Huck might grow up as a white man. In order not to give away too much of the plot, let it merely be said that that fact has a great deal to do with explaining why Huck would not know his mother is black, even though she has reared him as his mother.
There is little doubt that Clinch's making Huck part black will, at the least, irritate scholars and devotees of Mark Twain's novel. Why, however, should that be so? Does Huckleberry Finn tell us anything to make it impossible for that to be true? Finn provides a coherent explanation of why that could be true with no one, except Huck's parents, knowing it. And Clinch, in his afterword to his novel, points out that Huck himself is not necessarily a reliable narrator. Given the Pap whom Clinch has created for Finn, it would be almost impossible for Huck's mother not to be black. Instead of objecting to what Clinch has done to Huck, perhaps we should ask ourselves why the idea of his being part black troubles us.
R. Kent Rasmussen is the author of Mark Twain A to Z, a two-volume revision of which will be published by Facts On File in May under the new title Critical Companion to Mark Twain. His most recent book, Bloom's How to Write About Mark Twain, will be published by Chelsea House in December. He is currently starting his own novel using Mark Twain's characters and promises that it will not resemble Clinch's novel in content, style, or quality.
Rasmussen strongly recommends that you visit Jon Clinch's website
and Random House's website for Finn at http://www.ReadFinn.com.
He also invites you to join a discussion of Finn now starting up on
the webboard of Constant Reader, an informal online discussion group, of which
he has been a member for 15 years. Go to http://www.constantreader.com/
and click on "webboard" for instructions on signing on. If you
don't want to sign up as a member, you can merely observe the discussion,
which is in the Reading List section.