The misadventures of Huckleberry’s dad
Finn By Jon Clinch Scribe, 304pp, $ 32.95
FOR Mark Twain, a classic was ‘‘ a book people praise and don’t read’’. Huckleberry Finn changed that to a book people condemned and didn’t read. In the 19th century, many American libraries banned it because, as one of them put it: ‘‘ It deals with a series of adventures of a very low grade of morality; it is couched in a rough dialect, and all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and rough, coarse language.’’
They were right on all counts, but what many in the American south found unforgivable was left unsaid. Huck doesn’t just run away, but does so with a fugitive slave, and treats him as an equal.
In their travels along the Mississippi they come across a half- submerged shack drifting down with the current, and inside there’s the body of a man whose face Jim doesn’t let the boy see. He’s been shot in the back, he’s surrounded by whisky bottles, and there are crude charcoaled drawings on the walls.
We learn that the corpse is that of Huck’s father, Pap, and out of these tantalising clues Jon Clinch has created an imaginative fiction in which Twain’s peripheral Pap becomes the central character. We’ve already met him in chapter five of Huckleberry Finn , where he’s the town drunkard, but there he’s seen through his son’s boyish eyes: menacing, appalling, but faintly comical as well.
In Finn , it’s as if he’s broken out of the original novel and taken on a rampaging life of his own. Comical he is not. I know of no character in the southern gothic badlands of American literature — patrolled by monsters such as William Faulkner’s Popeye — who sinks as low as Pap. Wild- haired and filthy, he could have been dredged from the river bottom, and he’s even uglier underneath.
We are very deep in the antebellum south, where blacks are niggers and niggers are slaves. Pap is the son of Judge Finn, equally repellent but better dressed. Pap takes, literally, a black woman called Mary as his partner. In what passes for white society this is unpardonable, but the consequences are even worse. She bears him a son: Huckleberry.
This is Clinch’s most provocative intervention, subverting what in the more liberal 20th century became a cherished motif of Twain’s novel: the mixed- race friendship of Huck and Jim. In Clinch’s version he’s a mulatto. The judge’s bloodlines have been befouled, and if Pap doesn’t dispose of his son, the judge will.
Huck, of course, survives. Maybe the fact that he has to, in order to tell his own story in Huckleberry Finn , is all that saves him, because violence is everywhere. Finn is his father’s tale; there are no friendships here, only collisions. Pap moves through the narrative like a log flowing downstream, bruising anyone unwise enough to get in his way.
In his own twisted fashion Pap cares for Mary, but hates himself and her for such weakness. Mix self- loathing with alcohol and the result is explosive.
The novel opens with a body floating down the Mississippi. It turns out to be Mary’s ( we are flashing forward here) and the description of its ghostly passage can only be described as lyrical: ‘‘ it proceeds at a stately pace, as if its blind eyes were busy taking in the blue sky piled dreamily deep with cloud.’’
This sentence crystallises the novel’s power and its problem. If your central character is a lost soul at the outset, you have nowhere to go. You can write the story poetically — the prose has the fingerprints of Cormac McCarthy and Faulkner all over it — but for the reader to be fully engaged, some kind of deepening and development is needed.
As Pap is incapable of human engagement, character is replaced by chaos. Engagement requires communication and Pap is all blocked up. As for the charcoal drawings on the sinking shack’s walls teasingly described by Twain, Clinch has the answer. They’re Pap’s Neanderthal attempts to record the unspeakable. But one of his victims gets her revenge in the end: she shoots him in his drunken sleep. The shack collapses and the novel ends as it begins, with a corpse floating down the river.
There’s no denying the power of Clinch’s prose, but its unrelieved blackness would have Twain doing paddle- wheels in his grave. Barry Oakley, a former literary editor of The Australian, is a novelist, playwright and anthologist.