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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 15 Apr 2007 22:00:43 -0600
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by R. Kent



_Finn_. By Jon Clinch. New York: Random House, 2007. Pp. vi, 286.
Hardcover. $23.95. ISBN 978-1400065912.

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
R. Kent Rasmussen

Copyright  2007 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Mark Twain's _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ has long been regarded as a
disturbing book and rightly so. It uses language with which we are not
always comfortable and exposes truths that we may not wish to hear.
Moreover, it does these things in subtle and ironic ways that we cannot
always be sure we understand. And even when we think we understand what the
book is saying, other readers may not see it as we do. This very lack of
agreement on the book makes it even more disturbing. Is _Huckleberry Finn_
a racist book or an antiracist book? Regardless of our own opinions, there
is still no consensus on that fundamental question. Is it possible that the
novel is both racist and antiracist at the same time? That in itself is yet
another disturbing thought.

For a work of literature to be disturbing is, of course, not necessarily a
bad thing. After all, if everyone agreed on what _Huckleberry Finn_ says,
would people still debate the issues it raises as they do now? Probably
not. In any case, the book is likely to remain controversial, and every few
years something happens to stir up new interest in it and ignite a fresh
debate. Tempers may flare and charges and countercharges may be leveled,
but when the debate cools down, we generally feel invigorated, and
_Huckleberry Finn_ emerges stronger than ever.

We now seem to be on the threshold a new debate about _Huckleberry Finn_.
This time, controversy is mounting over another disturbing novel that has a
strong affinity to _Huckleberry Finn_--Jon Clinch's _Finn_. Random House
released the book officially in February, but thousands of advance copies
circulated for months before then. A good number of reviews have been
published, and dozens of readers have weighed in on sites such as Judging by reviews, reader responses, and word of mouth, _Finn_
is certain to become controversial for many of the same reasons that
_Huckleberry Finn_ has been--its raw language and its disturbing
exploration of sensitive racial issues. It is also generating controversy
for its often gruesome depictions of violence and depravity. However,
something else is going on, as well. That something is concern that Clinch
may be stepping on the wrong toes. His crime: using characters and episodes
from Mark Twain's _Huckleberry Finn._

Magazine and newspaper reviews of _Finn_ have palpably twittered in
anticipation of the impact the book will have in academic circles. For
example, the _Los Angeles Times_ reviewer suggested that "the central
academic achievement of 'Finn' will be to transport the world's Twain
scholars into a tizzy." Reviewers sniff trouble brewing, and they may be on
to something. _Huckleberry Finn_ is the sacred scroll of the Mark Twain
world, and true believers do not take kindly to seeing their scriptures
tampered with.

The first thing to make clear here is that Clinch's novel is _not_ a
reworking of _Huckleberry Finn_ but rather something more like an
extrapolation. The "Finn" of Clinch's book is not Huck but his father, Pap
Finn. Clinch borrows most of the incidents in _Huckleberry Finn_ involving
Pap, fleshes them out, and adds a stunningly rich and complex back story
that encompasses Pap's entire life and even provides a grandfather for Huck
who may be more terrifying than Pap himself. Clinch tells Pap's story in a
highly stylized third-person voice that bears no resemblance to Huck's
narration of his own story. Indeed, there is no sign that Clinch is in any
way trying to imitate Mark Twain's style. Moreover, to put the relationship
of Clinch's book to _Huckleberry Finn_ in perspective, it is helpful to
remember that everything that happens to Pap in _Huckleberry Finn_ occurs
within that book's first nine chapters. Little or nothing that happens in
the remaining 34 chapters of _Huckleberry Finn_ has any real bearing on
_Finn_, except, perhaps, the fact of Huck's ignorance of his father's death.

The English poet W. H. Auden once described Pap Finn as "a greater and more
horrible monster than almost any I can think of in fiction" and expressed
his satisfaction that Pap is eventually murdered in Mark Twain's novel.
Clinch's Finn may be even worse than the monster Auden envisaged. One of
the most impressive things about _Finn_ is how much mileage Clinch gets out
of _Huckleberry Finn_'s meager passages about Pap. Almost everything Clinch
has Pap say and do seems consistent with the character whom Mark Twain
created. That says something about Mark Twain's ability to make even a
minor character a living, breathing figure. However, Clinch develops Finn
much further.

_Finn_ can be read in a variety of ways, with and without reference to
_Huckleberry Finn_. Clinch's novel tells a story so compelling that it is
possible to regard it strictly on its own terms; however, readers
intimately familiar with Mark Twain's novel will naturally have a difficult
time seeing past _Finn_'s literary forebear. It would be only fair if such
readers were to open their minds and approach _Finn_ as an interpretation
of _Huckleberry Finn_, much as they would read any literary analysis of the
novel. That approach to _Finn_ provides stimulating speculations on
questions about Pap's back story: How did Pap get to be the monster that he
is? What feelings does he have toward Huck? Who was Huck's mother, and what
kind of relationship did Pap have with her? What kinds of relationships did
Huck have with his father and mother? Such questions are endless. The
answers that Clinch provides are unlikely to satisfy everyone, but does
that matter? The exciting thing is that Clinch is forcing us to reconsider
such questions and to think through their implications in Mark Twain's
novel. Does the fact that Clinch does this in fiction make his book any
less valuable than a nonfiction book that addresses similar questions?
_Finn_ is a marvelous book in its own right, but what it does to force us
to reconsider _Huckleberry Finn_ makes it more marvelous still.

_Finn_ is a far darker work than _Huckleberry Finn_ and has little in it
that might be considered humorous. It does, however, provide a great deal
of fun by filling in many of the blanks that Mark Twain left in his own
novel. Consider, for example, the episode in _Huckleberry Finn_ in which
Huck escapes from Pap's cabin and fakes his own death. How many people who
read _Huckleberry Finn_ give any thought to how Pap would respond to Huck's
hoax? Is it reasonable to assume that he would buy Huck's faked evidence?
And, if he doesn't buy it, how would he react? After reading _Finn_'s
account of that episode, you may find possible Mark Twain's version less
plausible than you did before.

Another fascinating episode from _Huckleberry Finn_ that _Finn_ develops
further is Pap's encounter with St. Petersburg's new, reform-minded
judge--the episode that ends with Pap wrecking the judge's guestroom and
moving the judge to suggest that the only way to reform him is "with a
shot-gun." _Finn_ takes the reader into the judge's home, describes Pap's
dinner with the judge's family in great detail, and provides the sordid
details of exactly how Pap loses his new coat and breaks his arm. Another
wonderful extrapolation recounts Pap's actual meeting with the black
college "p'fessor." These moments alone make _Finn_ a joy to read, and they
are typical of many episodes in the book that seem more believable than
their parallels in _Huckleberry Finn._

_Finn_ is a haunting and extraordinarily complex novel with a nonlinear
narrative structure that demands close attention to every passage, If one
reads it carelessly, it would be easy to lose track of connections among
characters and events. At the same time, however, the book's complex
structure makes for immensely rewarding surprises, as its pieces fall
together. In addition to being a character study, _Finn_ has many elements
of a mystery novel. Indeed, its very premise is based on a mystery posed in
chapter 9 of _Huckleberry Finn_, in which Huck describes how he and Jim
discover a dead man in the frame house that floats down to Jackson's
Island. That passage (which forms the prelude to _Finn_) is worth quoting
in its entirety:

"`It's a dead man. Yes, indeedy; naked, too. He's 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 under-clothes,
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 milk in it; and
it had a rag stopper for a baby to suck. We would a took the bottle, but it
was broke. There was a seedy old chest, and an old hair trunk with the
hinges broke. They stood open, but there warn't nothing left in them that
was any account. The way things was scattered about, we reckoned the people
left in a hurry and warn't fixed so as to carry off most of their stuff."

The passage from _Huckleberry Finn_ has long made readers wonder what
happened inside that house before it floated down the river and who the
dead man was. When readers reach the final chapter of _Huckleberry Finn_
and learn, along with Huck, that the dead man was his father, they
inevitably wonder what Pap was doing in that house, who killed him, and
why. No answers are to be found in _Huckleberry Finn_. _Finn_ not only
explains every item in that house that Huck mentions but also builds
compelling explanations of how Pap met his end there and even why the house
floats down the river. Those explanations are astonishing. However, the
path readers must follow to reach them is not a pleasant one.

_Finn_ presents other mysteries, too. Indeed, the book opens with the
striking image of a decayed body floating down the Mississippi that is
discovered by boys. Is it the same body that is found floating in chapter 3
of _Huckleberry Finn_? _Finn_ seems never to identify its own floating body
explicitly, but the body's identity gradually emerges through a series of
grisly and often shocking revelations. Such revelations seem much more
powerful--and satisfying--when they are made through indirection than they
would be if the truth were simply stated outright. Even the fact that
Finn's son is Huck is not revealed immediately when the boy is first


So far, this discussion of _Finn_ has skirted what may be the book's single
most-controversial aspect. Readers who would prefer to discover it
themselves in the novel, instead of here, are advised to stop reading this
review at this point. However, since most previously published reviews of
the book have discussed this subject openly, you are probably already aware
of to what this "spoiler alert" alludes: viz., that _Finn_ makes Huck a
"mulatto." A very light-skinned mulatto, to be sure, but a mulatto, none
the less.

The Pap Finn of _Finn_ is a "nigger"-hating racist who is obsessed with the
beauty and grace of black women, and that obsession ultimately leads to his
downfall. Huck's mother, a young former slave named Mary is a literate and
refined woman who recalls _Pudd'nhead Wilson_'s Roxy in her devotion to her
son. Mary's love for Huck is so great that she is willing to make _any_
sacrifice to ensure his future welfare, even if that means renouncing her
motherhood so that Huck might grow up as a white man. In order not to give
away too much of the plot, let it merely be said that that fact has a great
deal to do with explaining why Huck would know his mother is black, even
though she has reared him as his mother.

There is little doubt that Clinch's making Huck part black will, at the
least, irritate scholars and devotees of Mark Twain's novel. Why, however,
should that be so? Does _Huckleberry Finn_ tell us anything to make it
impossible for that to be true? _Finn_ provides a coherent explanation of
why that could be true with no one, except Huck's parents, knowing it. And
Clinch, in his afterword to his novel, points out that Huck himself is not
necessarily a reliable narrator. Given the Pap whom Clinch has created for
_Finn_, it would be almost impossible for Huck's mother _not_ to be black.
Instead of objecting to what Clinch has done to Huck, perhaps we should ask
ourselves why the idea of his being part black troubles _us._


R. Kent Rasmussen is the author of _Mark Twain A to Z_, a two-volume
revision of which will be published by Facts On File in May under the new
title _Critical Companion to Mark Twain._ His most recent book, _Bloom's
How to Write About Mark Twain_, will be published by Chelsea House in
December. He is currently starting his own novel using Mark Twain's
characters and promises that it will not resemble Clinch's novel in
content, style, or quality.

Rasmussen strongly recommends that you visit Jon Clinch's website at

and Random House's website for _Finn_  at

He also invites you to join a discussion of _Finn_ now starting up on the
webboard of Constant Reader, an informal online discussion group, of which
he has been a member for 15 years. Go to

and click on "webboard" for instructions on signing on. If you don't want
to sign up as a member, you can merely observe the discussion, which is in
the Reading List section.