Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Finn (or the reason I've showered 5 times today)

Jon Clinch has done what few writers have dared and even fewer have succeeded in: He took a beloved classic (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and rewrote it from the perspective of Huck's delinquent father. This man barely makes an appearance in Mark Twain's classic, but he leaves his stain on the few pages he's given, and Clinch takes the handful of clues Twain left and faithfully follows them to their likely origins and ends. In so doing, he answers the questions Twain didn't see fit to answer: How Huck came to live with the widow Douglas; who Huck's mother was; and, perhaps most interesting, how Finn ended up dead in his river shack, where Twain's Jim and Huck found his naked body, surrounded by "heaps of old greasy cards scattered around the floor, and old whiskey 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."

So what did Twain tell us about Finn? He's fond of whiskey, he lacks basic human decency, and he is vehemently racist. And Clinch's Finn? Yep . . . check, check, and check. He's like the Grinch, if the Grinch had a weakness for forty-rod and murdered Cindy Lou Who before stealing her Christmas tree.
Behold the face of pure evil.
The story opens in the present, following the downriver journey of a fly-swarmed body that has been violated in an especially disturbing way. Then we meet Finn, who is drinking (surprise!) and telling his bootlegger, "I've broken it off with that woman." Cue the ominous music. Me thinks Mr. Finn is up to no good.

From there, the chapters alternate between past and present, attempting to explain how Finn became the dirty river rat we know and loathe and chugging steadily toward two conclusions: the mystery body in the river and Finn's body in the shack.

My biggest fear starting this book was that Clinch would try too hard to make Finn a sympathetic character. I don't WANT to like Finn. He's gross. We will never be friends. At the same time, it would be a mistake to write Finn as a one-note villain with no character arc. So Clinch's first attempt at explaining Finn's malfunction is a brief sojourn into his childhood, where we meet his stern father, the Judge, and his brother, Will. Will is sick all the time and Finn is neglected because Will needs All The Attention. At this point, I'm thinking, "Nice try, Clinch. I remain unconvinced."

Then we find out why the Judge disowned Finn, and, yeah, I did start to feel a tiny something close to sympathy. And I wasn't even mad about it. Well played, sir.

Besides Finn and the Judge, other minor characters from Adventures of Huck Finn are fleshed out, including the widow Douglas, Judge Thatcher, and the King. One example of Clinch's descriptive abilities is found in our first introduction to the King, who, as it turns out, is a dirty pedophile in addition to being a con man:
His stomach rolls abundantly out over his trousers despite a half-pair of home-knit galluses, and his threadbare crotch strains as he sits. He is bald as a lizard and his skin is the color of a fish belly, so white as to be nearly blue and spotted all over with moles and tiny scabbed lesions. He has done his beard the disservice of attempting to shave it with a found blade or some other scrap of metal within the past week, riverwater his only lubricant and no mirror in sight, and the result is that his flaccid cheeks resemble bottomland poorly tended and gone to brush.
Ugh, vomit. And it gets worse, but I don't dare spoil it for you.

The only relief from all this nefarious activity is Huck himself, who doesn't figure prominently here (in what Clinch declares is "Finn's book"). He is very much like his father, even as he stands in stark contrast to him. In much the same way, Finn resembles Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They are the same story, but in Finn, all the innocence has been stripped away. Clinch tells the story of what Huck could have become under his pap's tutelage, and, yeah, I guess he does it pretty well.

In other news, WHAT IS THIS?

And WHY isn't it on my dog right now?

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