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Twain in Vain

By (April 1, 2007) One Comment


By Jon Clinch
Random House, 2007

The many controversies that have attended The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn since its publication in 1884 have had an ironic tendency to resemble the objects of Mark Twain’s satire. Priggish Miss Watson, for instance, Huck’s henpecking schoolmistress, seems to perfectly presage the nagging moralizers who have censored the book from schools and libraries. It was Louisa May Alcott who stated, “if Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pureminded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them.” It’s just the kind of line to make Huck light out for the wilderness. Or take the lethal and meaningless bloodfeud in which Huck becomes briefly caught between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons. This has had its analogue in the often poisonous dialectic among infighting academic theorists and biographers over the true status of Twain’s racial messages.  

But floating serenely in the midst of all these civilized inanities, like Huck and Jim content on their raft, is the novel itself, always fresh from its naturalist currents of spring air and joyfulness. Huckleberry Finn is one of the rare American novels that seems to have sprung direct and whole from an indigenous oral tradition, blissfully unaware of its vellum-bound forebears across the ocean: every page of it breathes free.

For this reason it is a book that inspires not only appreciation and respect but deep love—even among its scholars. (Although some Twain scholars, it must be said, who crow over every rude thing he wrote in private correspondence, seem to despise their subject.) Former American literature professor Jon Clinch might fall in this category: a kind of dilettante aficionado of Twainiana, he seems to have been guided toward Huck Finn scholarship out of an abiding passion for the novel. Drawing from both his studies and his adulation, Clinch has now written Finn, in many ways an impressive, although compromised, fashioning of the world that might exist outside the pages of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Finn is about Huck’s father, who in the classic abducts Huck and locks him in his cabin in the hopes of somehow claiming custody of Huck’s savings (Huck has six thousand dollars in reward money being looked after by Judge Thatcher), and who is later found by Huck and Jim murdered down the river. Where Twain’s Finn is a loutish, abusive, and somewhat clownish drunk, Clinch’s title character is a much darker creation. Here Finn is a thug and murderer. Quick to feel that his honor has been violated—and usually made brave with cheap corn whiskey—Finn viciously revenges himself for perceived slights, but only upon children, halfwits, women, and blacks, those who either aren’t as strong as he is or have no recourse to justice. The very first image of the novel is of a dead woman, flensed of her skin, drifting down the Mississippi River. Before they drag the corpse in, locals guess that it might be Finn’s; it’s not, but the reflex speculation that he must be in some way involved with an untoward death is accurate, and sets the theme for a character who from start to end is an alcoholic, conscience-lapsed coward given to flails of brutal, unreasoning violence.

However, Finn is only a small—and rather pitiful—cracked vessel of evil in a vast floodplain of wickedness. For Clinch the Mississippi Valley in the 1840s is a corrupted backwater, and slavery is the taint at its source that spreads through every tributary. Missouri and all states south of it are slaveholding. But even in a nominally free state like Illinois blacks are ghettoized in marshy lowland Darktowns, which, being unsupervised by the law (and full of clandestine runaways), are havens for dregs such as Finn who live nearby along the river. Writing to an audience in 1885, Twain needed only drop allusions to the circumstances of slavery for its historical facts to gong in the minds of his readers. In 2007 Clinch feels he must strike that gong himself, and he does so time and again. In Finn even apparently well-bred northerners are defined by the inveterate racism that seeps like groundwater throughout the country. Finn’s father, a respected judge—and one of the most baldly villainous characters of the novel—seems to have bulwarked himself on the high ground of upper class society strictly out of a terror of miscegenation.

Inequality creates social leverage, however, and leverage is and always has been exploited for sex. Finn kidnaps a black woman named Mary as she is attempting to escape from Mississippi on a steamboat. Holding her hostage in a manner similar to his later abduction of Huck—in this case he need not lock Mary inside his cabin: if she runs and he catches her he can send her back to her owner for the bounty—Finn and Mary forge a troubled relationship that is one of the most intriguing aspects of this novel. Clinch does very well in subtly demonstrating how the evils of ownership and blackmail strangely conspire to form a relationship that admits true measures of love and kindness:

“Don’t you get any ideas,” says Finn as he chews at a piece of cornbread she has made up from meal sifted clean of rat droppings.
“What kind of ideas?”
“You know what kind.”
She does, but she cannot confess them even to herself.
He passes his arm across the river scene before them, magnanimous. “Not after all I done for you.”
She can tell that in his way he means it. And because he cannot help himself, as the months and years go by he is faithful to her as to nothing else in this world.

Finn is too brainless and cowardly to allow Clinch to scope substantial depths with this relationship—Aristotle was not just waxing didactic when he declared that a hero must not be altogether detestable—but to the extent that Finn cares about Mary it is because he, an otherwise disinherited ne’er-do-well, is able to possess her and give her the gift of a kind of freedom in return. The problem, though, is that caring for a black woman is intolerable to his pride as well as to his father, the Judge, who would prefer to kill Mary than let her pollute his bloodline. This conflict is heightened when Mary has a baby, whom, “perhaps in anticipation of a dusky quality of skin that to his good fortune never quite returns after the first fading bluish-purple blush,” she names Huckleberry.

Here of course is Finn’s bombshell and the detail that will make it a footnote in Twainiana forever after. Writing in The Houston Chronicle, William J. Cobb calls the premise a “piggyback,” a story that rides herd on that of a classic, usually with a revisionist agenda. (Cobb and other reviewers point out precedents like Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife; Geraldine Brooks’s March, about the father in Alcott’s Little Women, which won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize; and, perhaps most famously, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, about the mad first wife of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre.) But I think the term couches a sneer at the endeavor that Clinch doesn’t deserve. In fact, Clinch goes to scrupulous lengths to keep off Twain’s lawn, and has contrived a story that required not a whit less imagination than one built from scratch.

The gloomy, quasi-Gothic prose with which he narrates goes a long way in establishing distance from the larky irony and raucous vernacular of Huckleberry Finn. (Although this itself is a problem I will shortly discuss.) The only scenes in which Clinch overlaps with the classic concern Finn’s abduction of Huck; these are disposed of early and are inoffensive to the point of anticlimax. Huck appears to have no personality, either in speech or conduct, and this may be because he’s on his guard around his father, but is more likely because Clinch doesn’t dare, here or anywhere, to try to mimic a master of dialect.

Nor is the revelation in Finn that Huck is born of a black woman a trespass on Twain’s masterpiece. Clinch is pursuing a fascinating fancy, not arguing for an interpretation of Huckleberry Finn, with textual ciphers or other academic arcana marshaled as evidence. Literary theory is notorious for its dislocation from the actual experience of reading, and the debated question of Huck’s racial origins brought to a head with Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? (or, to name another critical chestnut that has indeed been cracked, “Was Huck Gay?”) has an overpowering irrelevance to the human story at the heart of the novel, that of a boy beginning to see what nothing in society has prepared him for, that a black man can be a friend.

Except in his supererogatory “Author’s Note” (let’s make it a rule: novelists shouldn’t be allowed to write explanatory afterwords until their books enter a second edition), Clinch wisely ignores argument to dwell instead in the world of his own making. That world is a violent and circumscribed backwoods thrown into inevitable upheaval by the mixing of races. And there are moments in Finn, when the relationship between Finn and Mary strains its delicate stitching and approaches its foreshadowed tragedy, of honest poignancy and wistfulness, which the novel has earned entirely on its own merits.

Yet, despite Clinch’s noteworthy independence from Huckleberry Finn, reading Finn is all to often an oppressive experience. For there is a venerable specter who casts his shadow over nearly every page of the book, constraining it and blocking the light of its naturalism. But this looming figure is not Mark Twain: it’s William Faulkner.

I will venture that it can now be agreed that Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner have, in sheer statistical number, exerted more influence on novel writers than any other modern prose stylists. Hemingway’s influence has been more expansive, but also more diffuse, and apart from a brief regeneration in the minimalism of Raymond Carver in the 1980s it has been parroted and parodied close to death. Faulkner’s influence, on the other hand, has been both more localized and more insidious. In an exaggerated form, the most conspicuous elements of his voice—his weirdly elliptical expressionism, tangled syntax, bombastic vocabulary, and unrelenting aura of moodiness and cynicism—have petrified into a kind of stylistic template from which virtually no writer born south of the Mason-Dixon line has been able to break free.

Clinch is from upstate New York, but is writing about racism in the sticks and is therefore in Faulkner’s thrall. According to this template a man cannot walk alongside a limestone courthouse and then find his father inside, but he must walk alongside the courthouse and “find therein his father.” People do not have looks or appearances in this mode; they have “visages.” And as though it were a bylaw in a charter, the words “thus” and “thereby” must occur on every third page.

Faulkner employed biblical parallels stripped of their spirituality, and the Bible has been indiscriminately ransacked to access its artistry-through-association ever since. Nearly all of Clinch’s metaphors exhale the stale breath of hoary scriptural portentousness. Finn eyes a glass of whiskey and, “like Jacob with the angel the riverman wrestles, torn between desire and dignity, sipping and sniffing and eyeing the glass in the lamplight as if speculating whether it contains some liquefied gemstone or the purest poison.” When he lights a match, “he concentrates a rapt and almost holy attention as if this were the last matchstick on earth and mankind’s final illumination.” Because this is a bleak novel the Faulknerian template mandates at least one “funereal black buzzard, silent and evilly intent, its wings half spread and its shoulders hunched and its talons hooked into flesh like some great grim angel of death.” In its oracular and po-faced depictions of violence Finn is often immediately reminiscent of Faulkner’s foremost heir, Cormac McCarthy. The figure of the urbane, coldblooded Judge—a man “transient and inscrutable”—is picked clean from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Nobody laughs in McCarthy’s books except imbeciles and psychopaths, and Clinch adopts but does not adapt this tone of brutal, fervent joylessness.

In so many cases the potential emotions of Clinch’s characters are frozen by the rigid mannerism of his style. And nowhere do his inhibitions become more stifling than in his dialogue. Here is a typical exchange, this between Finn and Mary:

“How much he tell you?” Rather than tell it again himself.
“That you’re going to the penitentiary,” she says. “For a year.”
“I reckon that’d cover it.”
“A year.”
Finn nods.
“Seems like forever.”
“It’s supposed to.”
“I’ll wait for you.”
“You don’t have to. I’ll not blame you if.”
“But I will.”
“I know it.”
“And we’ll come visit you.”
“I don’t know they’ll allow it.”
“We’ll come anyhow.”
“It’s a ways.”
“Not that far.”
“You’ll be busy. With the boy and all.”
“I know it.”

This is not the revealingly laconic plainspeech of a salt-of-the-earth dramatis personae, but a flinching retreat into stock rural tough-talk. “I know it” recurs as Finn’s trademark locution, which is itself exasperatingly null as a slogan, but careful study of the preceding excerpt shows that Mary says it the second time. Everyone in Finn talks this way, including Judge Thatcher and the Widow Douglas, and after a half-dozen stagnant non-interactions you develop an irresistible need to throw open a window or take a walk around the block.

“They call that govment? A man can’t get his rights in a govment like this. Sometimes I’ve a mighty notion to just leave the country for good and all.” This is Twain’s Pap Finn, a man who doesn’t shut up once the liquor begins to work:

I says, look at my hat—if you call it a hat—but the lid raises up and the rest of it goes down till it’s below my chin, and then it ain’t rightly a hat at all, but more like my head was shoved up through a jint o’ stove-pipe. Look at it, says I—such a hat for me to wear—one of the wealthiest men in this town if I could get my rights.

After hearing Clinch’s Finn mutter “I know it” for the twentieth time you become desperate for him to stand on a chair and start shouting about his hat. There is a great deal of skill in Finn, and, clamoring under its false surface, deposits of earnest feeling. In borrowing Twain’s materials to construct a unique story Clinch has done a brazen thing and so earned some of the fine effects that daring yields. But if he wants to compose a novel that in the long run is more than a footnote, he’ll have to risk writing in a voice that’s his own.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, The Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.

One Comment »

  • Jim says:

    “But if he wants to compose a novel that in the long run is more than a footnote, he’ll have to risk writing in a voice that’s his own.”

    Just wait for his upcoming KINGS OF THE EARTH. You’ll be knocked flat. Ten or twelve voices according to my advance copy, from all walks of life in the upstate New York where he grew up. This is a guy who knows what he’s doing, and I’ll bet FINN is just the way he wanted it.

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