The mis­ad­ven­tures of Huck­le­berry’s dad

Finn By Jon Clinch Scribe, 304pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Barry Oak­ley

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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