Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.
It proceeds as do all things moving down the Mississippi in the late summer of the year, at a stately pace, as if its blind eyes were busy taking in the blue sky piled dreamily deep with cloud. There will be thunder by suppertime and rain to last the whole night long but just now the early day is brilliant and entirely without flaw. How long the body has been floating would be a mystery if any individual had yet taken note of its passage and mused so upon it, but thus far, under the sky of blue and white and upon this gentle muddy bed aswarm with a school of sunfish and one or two smallmouth bass darting warily as thieves, it has passed only empty fields and stands of willow and thick brushy embankments uninhabited.
A crow screams and flaps off, bearing an eye as brown and deep as the Mississippi herself…
This is the opening of Finn, a 2007 novel by Jon Clinch, one of the best pieces of fiction that I’ve read in a long time. I won’t disclose the name of the owner of the body in question as this person figures prominently in the story.
During a visit to Hannibal, Mo., last week, I noted that the book, appropriately, was on sale at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum along with Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
This is fitting because Finn, through Clinch’s fertile imagination, builds on the story of Twain’s best-known characters, fills in gaps in Huck’s lineage and provides a back story for Huck’s abusive, ne’re-do-well father while contradicting nothing that Twain wrote.
Huck’s father, Twain tells us, was the town drunk in the fictional St. Petersburg, Mo., of the late 1840s — the title character of Clinch’s novel.
But Twain tells us nothing about Huck’s mother. Clinch imagines up a mother for Huck, and a dark, compelling tale it is, worthy of Twain’s best imaginings.
One would surmise that Clinch has had a long association with the Mississippi, judging from his poetic evocations of the river in its many moods. But his online biography says he “was born and raised in upstate New York” and that during his varied career “he has been an English teacher, a metalworker, a folksinger, an illustrator, a typeface designer, a housepainter, a copywriter, and an advertising executive.”
My hometown on the Mississippi River, Alton, Ill., even makes a brief appearance in Finn as the place where Huck’s father pays his debt to society for maiming a man in a barroom brawl with the jagged bottom of a broken ale glass.
“The penitentiary at Alton is the state’s original and Finn is among its earliest inmates,” Clinch writes. “A low stone fortress asquat by the Mississippi, it houses but twenty-four prisoners and admits into their presence nearly no air and less sunlight. He has inhabited worse places than this and he surely will again.”
It’s not necessary to re-read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn before taking up Clinch’s book.
But to do so would increase the pleasure of reading Finn.
In a Q&A with Clinch printed at the back of the paperback version of Finn, the author is asked: “How careful were you to match events in Finn to events in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?”
His reply: “Extremely, although I always gave myself a certain amount of leeway. As Twain himself wrote: ‘Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.'”