We may live
our lives in the light, but experience them only in the shadows. We may
stride through the years, day following day, but our memories will be
anything but sequential. Anything we experience is edited and recast
in our own imagery. Even literature, a bedrock which does not demonstrably
change, may be re-interpreted by subsequent generations. The text for
'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' has been here for us to enjoy for
well over a hundred years. But our experience of that text can change
with each passing day. There are mysteries there left unsolved, and most
tantalizingly, the death of the elder Finn, Huck's father. Jon Clinch's
'Finn' offers a dark, mesmerizing vision of Huck's father. It's a gorgeously
crafted, beautifully written tale of murder and self-loathing, an achronological
journey up a filthy river of blood. Clinch quickly establishes that 'Finn'
is no 'Huck Finn', and his Biblical prose proves to be up to the task
of establishing an identity that acknowledges Twain without using it
as a crutch. The two works complement one another in an unusual manner.
If 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' is the New Testament, full of
hope and understanding, sunlight, irony and grace, then 'Finn' is the
Old Testament, replete with vengeance sworn against enemies that deserve
In the beginning of the novel, a body floats downstream. It is rotting
and the stream is shallow and murky. It is not Finn's body; not yet.
That is to come later, but not in chronological order. Clinch tells his
story in the manner of a river flowing through a thickly polluted flat,
with stinking bubbles of malodorous memory rising to the surface of the
story when they are called for. Finn is a willfully ignorant man, who
captures a slave girl and takes her as his bride, shaming himself and
his family. Holed up in a shack on the side of the river, he begets a
child. Huck Finn, a mulatto boy who can pass for white. It's a daring
re-invention of Twain's world, and the plot that unfolds is literally
stomach wrenching. Readers will have to pay close attention, because
Finn's not an orderly man with an orderly mind. He's a murderous, scavenging
thief, and the plot veers between the past and the present based on the
level of self-hatred that Finn himself experiences.
Clinch's prose is darkly beautiful, filled with music and an unflinching
ability to gaze at the abyss and become the monster. Told in an omniscient
third-person perspective, it is infected by the supernatural, surreal
view of those who cling to life at the edge of civilization. Little in
the book seems real, but it all seems authentic, as if Clinch plucked
his words from minds that could barely comprehend what they were experiencing.
Though 'Finn' is a literary novel through and through, it often reads
like a literary horror novel, and may appeal to readers of genre fiction.
Few writers have so effortlessly conveyed a pre-scientific view of the
world around us. 'Finn' is steeped in superstition and suspicion, and
reminiscent of the work of Flannery O'Conner. While Clinch does replay
some events from Twain, he provides a perspective that is unique to this
work. The writing here very effectively lets Clinch assert his own identity
When you create a character as detestable as Finn, you play a dangerous
game. Readers generally like their horrors to have some sympathetic aspect,
and Clinch cleaves quite close to an unpleasant truth about our nation
as well as his main character. That said, there are flashes of something
in Finn that keep us glued to the pages here. After all, a character
as filled with self-hatred as is Finn must have some doubts about his
actions, even if he fearlessly pursues them. And there are flashes of
something in Finn that keep him on the edge of the abyss. We may know
there is no hope for this character, and Finn himself may think this
is true, but he doubts it just enough to offer a glimpse of the potential
for love if not the actuality. Mary, the captured slave girl, offers
readers the actuality of love, though Huck himself is relegated to the
background in a manner that helps to character the father more than the
Fathers and sons, slaves and masters, memory and reality; 'Finn' is a
novel filled with duality that spends most of its time in the murky darkness.
Clinch echoes Twain and himself, creating a novel that is a shadow of
the shadows, the sediment beneath the murk, the filth beneath the fury.
There is light here as well; in the gorgeous prose, in the evocative
re-ordering of story and chronology. "'Vengeance is mine, I will
repay,' saith the Lord." And it shall be served cold. Very cold.