Southern lit review: Jon Clinch’s Finn

Just finished up an exceptional book, Jon Clinch’s Finn, which tells the story of Huckleberry Finn’s father from before Huck’s birth to just before his final appearance in Twain’s novel. Finn, as he’s called here, is a brutal, cruel man, lustful and petty and violent and indifferent all at once. Clinch has done something fascinating here, taking perhaps the best-known work of American literature — Hemingway called it the wellspring from which all American fiction sprang — and offering us a chance to view it in a completely new, yet utterly appropriate, light.

The entire book stems from these few paragraphs in Chapter 9 of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck and Jim come across the corpse of Finn himself in a ruined cabin:

“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 … Jim he found a ratty old fiddle-bow, and a wooden leg. The straps was broke off of it, but, barring that, it was a good enough leg, though it was too long for me and not long enough for Jim, and we couldn’t find the other one, though we hunted all around.

Every single item named in that list there plays a significant role in Finn, and it’s only after reading both together that you see how seamlessly Clinch wove his story around Twain’s. The narrative loops around and around; the payoff for certain events hinted at in the book’s final pages actually came in the opening ten. It can be confusing as hell, at first, particularly with the apocalyptic William Gay/Cormac McCarthy Southern gothic tone and vocabulary, but once I finished it I literally flipped right back to the start and reread the first hundred pages to get the full sense of what had happened.

And while Huckleberry Finn is taught in middle schools — at least, those not held prisoner by illiterate ideologues — Finn is most definitely an adults-only book. Cannibalism, perversion, coldblooded murder — this is not a book for the squeamish. But Clinch has created a classic American figure out of the sketches Twain left behind, even adding a fascinating new twist to Huck himself that helps explain so much of why he did what he did. But Finn’s tragedy is how he never even thought to light out for the territories the way his son would.

Jay

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