Finn, by Jon Clinch

Clinch’s book has been reviewed far better than I ever could elsewhere, so I’m not going to go into a long literary analysis here. In short: I did like it, but Clinch is no Mark Twain, although I’m glad he did have the audacity to take on such a landmark work of fiction.

The summary version is: it’s about Huckleberry Finn’s father, called simply Finn in this novel. Child of a prejudiced and cruelly unloving father, the Judge, Finn devolves into an ambitionless unlettered alcoholic content to (and indeed only able to) trade fish from his illegal trotlines for as much whiskey and ‘shine and as few foodstuffs and clothing for himself, his mistress and their child as will support life. Given that this is backstory to a reasonably well known novel, many of the secondary characters and the subplots surrounding Huck will be familiar to many readers–Huck’s time with the widow Douglas, finding the treasure with Tom Sawyer–but Clinch does no more than touch on these as they affect Finn himself. Clinch does go out on something of a limb by suggesting that Huck may be biracial, but even that makes sense in a way to explain Huck’s affinity for Jim, although Twain never hinted that Huck was other than white that I recall.

It’s well-written, but don’t read it expecting something like Twain’s books; it’s a dark book that may explain but does not condone Finn’s behavior or that of his father, the Judge. We’re left with someone who’s even less likeable than Pap was in Huck Finn. While it’s interesting to read Clinch’s explanation of the mysterious circumstances of “Pap”‘s death, any book that involves alcoholism to the point of seeing snakes, cruelest racism (not that there’s any kind type!) and cannibalism is not for the faint of heart.

I need to read Cormac McCarthy’s work before deciding how like Clinch is to McCarthy, but this is a relentlessly dark work. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wasn’t the lightest thing going, and has more than a few subtexts and undercurrents, but it’s appropriate for high school English classes to read. Finn isn’t for the young, the squeamish or the hopeful believers in happy endings–given the manner in which Finn disposes of the mother of his child, I’d have to describe this as the opposite of a gentle read. I’d also suggest (re)reading Huckleberry Finn before reading this; Clinch assumes his readers will be well acquainted with that book. It’s been [mumble] years since I read the book on which Finn is based and there were several points at which I wondered “…I don’t remember that…”


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