February 2007

Mariya Strauss

fiction

Finn by Jon Clinch

I haven’t been swallowed whole by a work of fiction in some time. Jon Clinch’s first novel has done it: sucked me under like I was a rag doll thrown into the wake of a Mississippi steamboat. Starting from the wise assumption that in great literature minor characters are actually major ones, Clinch has fashioned a fast-moving, weirdly fascinating story from raw materials provided in Chapter Nine of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There Mark Twain sketches out the circumstances of Huck’s father’s tormented life and gruesome death with a tableau of objects left for Huck and Jim to find:

He went, and bent down and looked, and says:  "It's a dead man. Yes, indeedy; naked, too. He's ben shot in de back. I reck'n he's ben dead two er three days. Come in, Huck, but doan' look at his face -- it's too gashly."

I didn't look at him at all. Jim throwed some old rags over him, but he needn't done it; I didn't want to see him. There was heaps of old greasy cards scattered around over the floor, and old whisky bottles, and a couple of masks made out of black cloth; and all over the walls was the ignorantest kind of words and pictures made with charcoal. There was two old dirty calico dresses, and a sun-bonnet, and some women's underclothes hanging against the wall, and some men's clothing, too. We put the lot into the canoe -- it might come good. There was a boy's old speckled straw hat on the floor; I took that, too. And there was a bottle that had had milk in it, and it had a rag stopper for a baby to suck. –The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 9

Populated with salty-voiced rivermen, and narrated in a staccato present tense which seems to both stop time and preserve the immediacy of events, Finn successfully revivifies Mark Twain’s mid-19th century Mississippi society. The presence of each item in Finn’s cabin cited above is eventually explained. At first I found myself flinching a little at the dead-on way that Jon Clinch nailed the inflections and tone of Twain’s river-centered world, and I read on, waiting for Clinch to accidentally break the spell with an anachronistic turn of phrase or a false-sounding piece of dialogue. About halfway through, I realized it would never happen -- I was in the hands of a storyteller who cares deeply, perhaps fanatically, about craft. No need to worry about form. Let’s look at the content.

This book records Huck’s father’s adulthood, beginning with and punctuated by atrocities committed quietly and in appalling sureness that there will be no consequences for the perpetrators. Atrocities are done to, by and because of the elder Finn, and the reader is invited to observe his actions and responses in nearly microscopic detail. One could decide by page 17 that Finn is a damned monster and judge his character (and perhaps the book) unworthy of further scrutiny. Certainly he behaves all throughout like a damned monster, especially toward black people, whose lives he values less than those of the fish he dredges from the bottom of the river.

But to judge him in this way -- to dismiss him as a one-dimensional villain -- would be to side with Finn’s own hated father, Huck’s grandfather, whom Clinch refers to only as The Judge. Indeed there are a series of judges along the river who truck in far higher society than Huck’s father, and who all have occasion to meet and judge Finn for themselves. They do so at their own peril, because Finn is a character shaped by the river and by the hatreds passed to him by his father and by the institution of slavery. Finn has no moral center, no conscience and no loyalties except to his own appetites. He is a bottomfeeder (Clinch portrays him as a fishmonger, bartering his catch of catfish -- the ultimate bottomfeeders -- up and down the river for things he needs to survive), and a hard-core alcoholic. Everything about Finn is at odds with love, and that makes for an interesting story in which love enters his life -- in the form of Huck’s mother -- and makes of it something intolerable even to himself.  

Finn himself is at times a dealer of a certain kind of rough river justice. This Clinch masterfully illustrates with a scene in which, on the river in a stolen boat, Finn gets run over by a steamer, is saved by a black worker on the boat, climbs aboard and proceeds directly to the captain, where he demands, and subsequently extorts, immediate payment for his destroyed skiff. This payment comes in the form of a human being. I will allow you to surmise the rest, or read it yourself.

Finn takes after his father, The Judge, in his merciless lack of compassion but without the sanction of law. The body count in the book starts on the first page and rises thereafter with the grim steady pace of a river after a heavy rain. One pivotal scene of violence is as unsettling as any in American novels, and Clinch delivers the horror with an uninterrupted, slow-motion pace worthy of a Hitchcock film.

Amoral and low, capable of clever subterfuge, astonishingly tender fidelity and twisted cruelty, Huck Finn’s pap turns out to be a character worthy of a novel-length study. Jon Clinch has turned in a nearly perfect first book, a creative response that matches The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in intensity and tenacious soul-searching about racism. I wish I could write well enough to construct a dramatic, subtle and mysterious story out of careful, plodding and unromantic prose, but for now I’m just happy to have an alchemist like Jon Clinch do it for me.

Finn by Jon Clinch
Random House
ISBN: 1400065917
287 pages