In THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, we see Huck's father through the boy's eyes. A violent drunk, Pap Finn appears and disappears, an unpredictable monster. When Finn is murdered, Mark Twain describes the scene of his death --- a bleak lair littered with seemingly random objects: whiskey bottles and women's clothes, black cloth masks and a boy's straw hat.
Jon Clinch takes this description and spins an entirely new story of Finn as a complex man struggling to make sense of his own experiences. Finn essentially is still a monster, a thief and a murderer, whose huge self-destructive impulses inevitably lash out to maim everyone in his path. Yet he's capable of love, and it's here that Clinch's phenomenal talent is most convincing.
Huck's mother, Mary, is an escaped slave who stays with Finn largely out of fear and duress, but he does love her. He also loves Huck; anyone who has ever seen a new father pour his whole heart into a baby will recognize Finn's feelings as he takes the little boy with him out on the river. One of the bleakest messages in the book is that love isn't enough. It won't win --- it can't --- not when faced with such all-encompassing cruelty, which is all Finn knows.
Where does such a man come from? On occasion, Finn must make his way home, skulking up to his family's doorstep to demand money. Finn's father, known only as the Judge, takes a great deal of joy in devising punishments --- in the docks and at home --- that best suit the crimes at hand. Neither father nor son is capable of seeing each other in themselves, although it's apparent to the reader in their stubbornness and vindictive natures. Judge Finn is a virulent racist; Finn's many boyhood offenses pale when his father discovers Mary stashed in the shed behind the family home, kept there for sex.
Huck, of course, is an abomination to Judge Finn, a product of the miscegenation that repulses and obsesses the old man. There is a way back to Pap Finn's heart, but the terrible sacrifices Huck requires propel Finn down the last curl of his violent spiral.
There is only one minor point on which Jon Clinch and Mark Twain are not entirely aligned: Clinch is a far better writer than Twain ever was. I found myself thinking of William Faulkner more often than Twain; Faulkner handled human misery with the same deft touch as Clinch does.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn on March 11, 2008