Sunday, October 11, 2015
Finn by Jon Clinch
Published February 2007 by Random House
Source: both my print and audiobook copies were purchased
Narrator: Mel Foster
Jon Clinch takes us on a journey into the history and heart of one of American literature’s most brutal and mysterious figures: Huckleberry Finn’s father. The result is a deeply original tour de force that springs from Twain’s classic novel but takes on a fully realized life of its own.
Finn sets a tragic figure loose in a landscape at once familiar and mythic. It begins and ends with a lifeless body–flayed and stripped of all identifying marks–drifting down the Mississippi. The circumstances of the murder, and the secret of the victim’s identity, shape Finn’s story as they will shape his life and his death.
Along the way Clinch introduces a cast of unforgettable characters: Finn’s terrifying father, known only as the Judge; his sickly, sycophantic brother, Will; blind Bliss, a secretive moonshiner; the strong and quick-witted Mary, a stolen slave who becomes Finn’s mistress; and of course young Huck himself. In daring to re-create Huck for a new generation, Clinch gives us a living boy in all his human complexity–not an icon, not a myth, but a real child facing vast possibilities in a world alternately dangerous and bright.
Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is one of the most memorable characters in American literature. His father, Pap, plays a minor but significant role in Twain's book; in a bit of fan fic, Clinch has imagined here a fuller life for the man. A much darker one than Twain might have written.
Clinch does a great job of taking the details about Finn that Twain provided, incorporating other characters from that book, and giving Finn a full history, as well as providing a fuller background for Huck. It has less of the tongue-in-cheek humor of Twain but retains the colloquialisms and essential tone of the source material. For me, this was helped immensely by the fact that Mel Foster sounds so much like Hal Holbrook (who played Twain for years).
Where Clinch really veers away from Twain, though, is in the almost Cormac McCarthyesque brutality of the novel. Finn is not just a man made angry by his drinking and his circumstances, as envisioned by Clinch. He is a brutal, amoral, murderous alcoholic, although he is not one-dimensional. Clinch envisions him as a boy who was, as they say, a handful, a boy they found hard to love but who also seemed not to need them as much as his brother did, a boy who would grow up to be a man constantly seeking his father's approval. Which makes it hard to thoroughly hate Finn despite his heinous actions and which makes him a man worth reading about.