Dallas, TX –
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - we all surely remember - Jim and Huck, early in their travels on the river, come upon a wrecked house floating down the Mississippi. They board it and find a dead man, shot in the back. The corpse looks so ghastly that Jim covers it with rags. Only much later does he tell Huck that the man was Huck's father.
Mark Twain never explains the murder. Pap Finn is such an abusive drunk that Twain need only scatter some playing cards and empty bottles around for his readers to draw the obvious conclusion. Pap Finn was shot in a drunken fight over poker or looting the house. But author Jon Clinch has imagined something even grimmer and more disturbing, and it makes his novel, simply called Finn, a remarkable debut.
In conceiving his story, Clinch made some smart, bold choices. First, it's not a prequel or sequel to Huckleberry Finn. Rather, it runs parallel to the early portions of Twain's book, sometimes intersecting with the 1884 novel. Clinch's main character is Pap Finn who, like Huck, was a wild child, resistant to schooling and respectability. But Finn isn't a boy's adventure tale. It begins with a different murdered body floating down the river and from there plunges into areas of sex and racial violence that Twain could only hint at. Pap Finn's youthful rebelliousness alienated his unforgiving judge of a father, but it's only when Pap, himself a savage racist, takes up with a runaway slave named Mary that he enrages the Judge. Disinherited, Pap becomes the town drunk, fishing a little to keep Mary fed but otherwise bitterly scrounging for drinks and trying to get his hands on the gold Huck found with Tom Sawyer.
Making Mary Huck's mother is Clinch's other audacious choice. He was inspired by University of Texas historian Shelly Fisher Fishkin's book, Was Huck Black?, Professor Fishkin's argument is not that Huck Finn was actually African-American but that in creating his greatest invention - Huck's narrative voice - Twain borrowed some of the storytelling style of a young black street preacher he'd heard. In effect, Huck is racially mixed, and Clinch makes this literal with Mary as his mother. What's more, Twain's masterwork is often cited as the start of all of our distinctly American literature, which means that from the beginning, our finest literature was part black. As the Southern historian C. Vann Woodward has put it, all Americans, at least in our culture, are mulattos. Or to paraphrase poet Robert Pinsky, America's great achievements are in our bastard arts: jazz, blues, musical comedy, movies, comic books, rock and roll.
Huck himself is a sideline in Finn. Clinch isn't about to compete with Twain's narrative genius. Instead, he gives Finn a haunting, lyrical style that evokes 19th century oratory and Missouri slang yet feels utterly modern, lean, sharp and dark. He has been criticised for modeling his prose on Cormac McCarthy's, but all first-time novelists should sound this assured, this daring. Clinch hasn't given us a summer sojourn on a raft. He's given us a descent into madness.
Jerome Weeks is a former book columnist for the Dallas Morning News and writes about books for artsjournal.com.
If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.