Inventing Huckleberry Finn’s father using only the thin scraps of information that Mark Twain provided is a pretty admirable feat, and reading Jon Clinch’s first novel provides an almost tactile pleasure: The story of Finn, the man Huck called “pap,” and Twain’s original lock together neatly, with a satisfying click. The abusive drunkard who’s eager to claim his son’s newfound money, we learn, is also an intrepid and occasionally clever conniver; Huck’s grandfather turns out to be the deep wellspring of racism that prompted Finn to pursue claiming a free black man for his own; most provocatively, we learn that Huck had a black mother, a notion that ingeniously bolsters the image of Huck as a straw-hatted metaphor for free-thinking Americans. Clinch clearly respects Twain, but he doesn’t feel especially cowed by his inspiration, and some of his inventions qualify as genuine improvements on the original text. When Finn’s attempt to stop drinking and come to Jesus fails, Twain writes that the would-be savior “reckoned a body could reform the old man with a shotgun, maybe.” In Finn the line is more potent: “The only way you’ll ever improve him,” a man says, “is with a pistol.” That line speaks to the wry, grim tone that Clinch employs throughout Finn, echoing Faulkner’s thick, tangled prose more than Twain’s homespun, dialect-heavy style. That approach means that Finn is clotted with a few overheated passages, as when Huck is born “dark with contorted rage…adrip with blood like some wrathful demon plucked from hell.” But the larger problem is that Finn’s full-blooded character is nested among a host of thin archetypes. Finn’s father is a stubborn absolutist about race (“I cannot tolerate my blood passing through mulatto veins”), his brother, Will, is a milquetoast lawyer, and Mary, Huck’s mother, rarely feels like more than a symbol for Finn’s warring instincts to honor his dad’s racism while seeking out his independence. Given Finn’s black-heartedness, the occasional flicker of humanity in his story—like when he assaults a man who insults Huck, something that lands him in the state pen for a year—feels like a forced bit of coloring. An increasingly pathetic (and violent) alcoholic living in a shack on the banks of the Mississippi, Finn knows enough about finance and the law to concoct money-making schemes, but he’s too unworldly to realize how harebrained they are. He is his son without the raft, without Jim, without the opportunity to understand the land that surrounds him, and without any of the humor that powered Twain’s writing. And for all the intelligence and care that Clinch has brought to getting the story right, Finn’s final moral—that racism is hateful and self-consuming—feels shopworn. Getting to know Huck’s dad is intriguing but ultimately underwhelming. After all, Huck got as far as he did, both down the Mississippi and in literary history, by striking out on his own, not fussing over family ties.
Clinch reads Monday, Feb. 26, 7 p.m., at Olsson’s Books and Records, 2200 Crystal Drive, Arlington; for more information, call (703) 413-8121.