'All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' "
Although Hemingway's famous remark rings of exaggeration, Huck Finn remains America's most-frequently taught novel and has inspired everything from Hemingway's own Nick Adams stories to Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" to Dorothy Allison's "Bastard Out of Carolina." The reason for its appeal, of course, is its colloquial adolescent voice: "You don't know about me," Huck tells us, "without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' but that ain't no matter."
More than a handful of contemporary novelists have rewritten, revised or reimagined "Huckleberry Finn." Last year, for example, Nancy Rawles gave us "My Jim." Told through the lens of Sadie Watson -- wife to Huck's raft companion, Jim -- it transforms the comic boyish adventure into a tragic narrative about the brutality and horrors of slavery.
The latest spinoff and arguably the finest to date, is Jon Clinch's debut novel, "Finn." Clinch's eponymous hero is not Huck but Pap, Huck's father -- the racist, abusive alcoholic who, in a brief but frightening role in Twain's novel, kidnaps his son and holds him captive in a cabin along the river. Clinch selects for his epigraph that strangely enigmatic passage from "Huck Finn" in which Jim discovers, in a frame house floating down the river, a naked dead man we later learn is Huck's father. Clinch was so haunted by that scene that he used the details surrounding the dead man (whiskey bottles, black cloth masks, charcoal writings on the wall, a boy's straw hat, a wooden leg) as clues for generating his own novel.
Finn opens with a flayed corpse floating down the river: "nothing remains but sinew and bone and scraps of succulent yellow fat that the crows have not yet torn free." This initial note, ominous and violent, sets the tone for the novel. Although the corpse is rumored to be Finn's, he is first seen sitting with a blind bootlegger, tossing strips of "flayed flesh" onto a fire, explaining how he's "broken it off with that woman." Talk about a creepy beginning.
Whereas Twain's novel is heavy in plot and filled with adventures, "Finn" is more in the vein of Cormac McCarthy or Faulkner with its interest in character, setting and language. The river, with its "slow hungry mouth," the stark wintry landscape, the bigoted rural culture, the darkness of night -- all are elements of a tough and oppressive life. And no one lives a tougher life than Finn. The physically abusive man spends his days hustling a few bucks by trading dead things, mostly fish, to buy whiskey. The next morning, he'll wake in jail, or on the bare ground, not surprised to find himself covered in vomit, naked or injured. While this may sound too depressing and static to make for good fiction, Clinch somehow manages to make us care about the lowly, despicable Finn.
An important test of a retelling or spinoff is whether it alters one's understanding of the earlier tale. Because Huck is mostly offstage, there is little interweaving between the two novels. When there is, we are reminded that Huck's story comes from a child and Finn's from an adult. For instance, in Twain's novel, Huck and Jim meet two colorful hustlers, the Duke and the King, with whom they have a series of mostly comic adventures. In Clinch's novel, Finn encounters the same King, who voices a desire "to sample something of a darker shade." Finn assists the King by killing a black man, then watches the King kidnap, bugger and discard the black man's son. There's nothing gentle or comic about this novel, which clearly brings to the surface the dark side of "Huck Finn."
The most significant revision to Twain's novel concerns Huck's parental lines. In "Huckleberry Finn," Huck's mom is dead, and hardly a word is spoken of her. Who was she? How did she die? Why is so little said? Clinch provides a possible answer. His Finn, though blatantly racist, also desires "a darker shade," though his interest is in women, not boys. Through an encounter on a steamboat -- the boat crashes into and destroys Finn's skiff, for which he seeks compensation -- Finn takes possession of a young black woman, Mary, who moves into his decrepit house along the river. Although he continues to drink excessively and abuse others, his life becomes more domestic with Mary. However, when Mary bears Finn's son, Finn's father -- a county judge whose racism is monstrous (Finn is almost a nice guy compared to the old man) --wants the offspring destroyed so that his bloodline will not be tainted. The revelation, of course, is that the fair-skinned child is named Huck.
Huck's maternity becomes increasingly complicated and confused, particularly after Mary escapes with him and finds refuge with the Widow Douglas. The possibility, though, of America's iconic adolescent being racially mixed is engaging and credible. It is also old news to scholars and critics, who first read of this possibility through Shelley Fisher Fishkin's 1993 study "Was Huck Black?" (Fishkin posited that the character of Huck was based on real-life black children Twain had encountered). Whether or not Clinch's novel even needs the age-old Southern trope of miscegenation, he mostly pulls it off, particularly as Finn increasingly engages questions about paternity and race.
By compelling us to ask questions about Huck's mother -- who was she and why is so little said? -- and by bringing an adult sensibility to Huck's world, Clinch greatly complicates and enriches our understanding of Twain's novel. That in itself may be enough, but he also generates a darkly satisfying and compelling read.
(James Schiff teaches American literature at the University of Cincinnati and is the author of the forthcoming work, "Updike in Cincinnati.")