This Finn Is A Real Shark

Finn," by first-time novelist Jon Clinch, seems like your usual standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants contraption. Its main character is Huckleberry Finn's alcoholic father, who cuts such a scary figure in Mark Twain's novel. Clinch restages some of Twain's scenes, and, as he says in an author's note, fits his story "meticulously into and around Pap Finn's appearances ... in 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'." In fact, Clinch's found his "road map" for much of "Finn" in a single scene in Twain: Huck's discovery of his father's corpse among some creepy artifacts: a woman's clothing, cloth masks, an artificial leg and, in charcoal on the walls, "the ignorantest kind of words and pictures."

You can find out for yourself just what Clinch has assembled from this Flannery O'Connor bric-a-brac. But his first six pages have a woman's corpse floating down the Mississippi and a blind man eating some sort of mysterious meat given to him by Pap, so it's fair to reveal that there's unpleasantness ahead. And Clinch's sense of the horrific includes more than simple violence. Here's Pap, after shattering a glass on his plank floor: " ... Before the whiskey can soak in he has flung himself prone and lapped up such of it as his desperate tongue can locate. He pays no mind to the slivers of wood ... although now and then a shard of glass does serve to impede his progress. He reckons that the more he presses forward the less he will have reason to mind, and in this he is after a fashion correct." Pap's brutality is ultimately self-directed, and the charcoal words and images on his walls are his means of "documenting his dissolution."

That passage also shows the narrative voice Clinch has assembled out of mixed diction: the same sentence contains "he reckoned" and "after a fashion correct." His models may include Cormac McCarthy, and Charles Frazier, whose "Cold Mountain" also has a voice that sounds like 19th-century American (both formal and colloquial) but has a contemporary terseness and spikiness. This voice couldn't be better suited to a historical novel with a modernist sensibility: Clinch's riverbank Missouri feels post-apocalyptic, and his Pap Finn is a crazed yet wily survivor in a polluted landscape.

Clinch withholds one secret for such a long time it must be important. Stop reading right now if you care: Huck's mother is black. This could cause professors of American Studies to fling the ignorantest kind of words. Clinch says in his note that a biracial Huck "subverts a cherished motif of 'Huckleberry Finn'." The mixed-race friendship of Huck and Jim is more than "cherished" by Americanists: it's the center of the novel. Yet Huck is light-skinned, and he believes his mother was white. So does it matter? Clinch says he's using "a device of which I believe his creator might have approved." We're still waiting to hear back from Twain's people on that, but all that really matters is that Clinch's Pap is a convincingly nightmarish extrapolation of Twain's. He's the mad, lost and dangerous center of a world we'd hate to live in--or do we still live there?--and crave to revisit as soon as we close the book.

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