I have long been an admirer of Mark Twain’s work, fiction and non-fiction alike. That admiration, and the negative comments that I heard about Jon Clinch’s first novel, Finn, almost convinced me to ignore the book. But after seeing comments about Finn on two of the blogs that I regularly read, book/daddy and A Garden Carried in the Pocket, I couldn’t resist any longer. And I’m happy that I didn’t.
Finn is not an easy book to read because, in its own way, it is even more horrifying than the fantastical books by writers such as Thomas Harris who splash gore around to such a degree that their books lose all sense of realism. The horrible crimes that are committed in Finn, on the other hand, always make the reader cringe simply because they seem to be happening to real people in a real world. As is so often the case in a man like Finn, he is the product of cold and abusive parents who warped him from the beginning. He is in constant rebellion against his father, a town judge who rules his courtroom and his home with an iron fist and who has no more sympathy for his sons than he does for the criminals he sees in court.
Clinch, of course, begins with the world created by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn but he fleshes out that world in a way that Twain himself was unable to do in the period in which he wrote. Using incidents and characters from Twain’s book, Clinch provides the back story to Huck’s tale that explains much of what Twain had to leave unsaid in the original.
The elder Finn depends on the Mississippi River for his very life. The river provides him with the catfish that he sells or exchanges in town for the supplies that keep him alive. More importantly to Finn, it is the sale of those same fish that make it possible for him to consume the amount of alcohol that makes life worth living for him. Equally important, the Mississippi is always there to cover a man’s sins and, as the book begins, one of those sins, a dead woman who has been skinned, is floating down the middle of the river toward town. But since Finn is a psychopath this is hardly the last of his crimes that the reader will witness.
The most controversial aspect of the novel is Clinch’s contention that Huck was a mulatto whose mother had been purchased off a steamboat in slave territory and taken back to Illinois against her will. That Huckleberry Finn was a black child is not a new theory, and Clinch has made that possibility the centerpiece of his novel. That fact alone determines the ultimate fate of not only Finn but of Mary, Huck’s mother, and it leads to the complete moral collapse of Judge Finn.
This may not be an easy book to read, and I don’t feel that I should say that I enjoyed it, but it is definitely one that will stay with me for a while. I’ve read many books that I can barely remember any details of just a year or two later. Finn is in no danger of becoming one of those.
Rated at: 4.0