A dark, compelling tale


“When I lit my candle and went up to my room that night, there set pap, his own self!”
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1885

Huck's father as depicted by E.W. Kemble for the 1885 first edition of Huckleberry Finn

One of the best opening passages in contemporary American fiction, to my mind, is about a rotting, river-borne corpse being picked apart by scavengers:
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.

An 1841 view from Mark Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal, by John Stobart

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.

Jon Clinch

“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.'”

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6 Comments

Filed under Americana, History, Journeys, Literary musings, Travels

6 responses to “A dark, compelling tale

  1. Imagine my delight when Google Alerts turned this up.

    My dual delight, actually: I saw it just before going out for my bike ride. You’ve got a very nice blog here all around, Jim. Well done.

    Thanks for the kind words.

    — Jon

    • Jon,
      Thanks for looking at my blog and for your kind words. I thoroughly enjoyed your book. And when I was in Hannibal last week, I recommended it to Cindy Lovell, executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. She hadn’t yet read it because of deadline pressure on other stuff. But she said after seeing my blog post, linked to Facebook, that she now wants to read it more than ever. I told her I had received a nice note from you and she sent along this reply: “Small, teeny, tiny world. How I love it! Please tell him thank you for me for his efforts to keep the Huck connections accurate. I have always fancied Pap Finn as a character and have made it my personal mission to introduce ‘big-bug’ back into our vernacular. We should start a movement!”
      Take care and thanks.
      Jim

      • I’ve always wanted to visit the Boyhood Home in Hannibal, but have had to content myself with the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, CT. Two sides of the same coin, I guess. Don’t know much about the state of things at the BH, but the H&M has had its share of financial difficulties. Which is a shame, those places both being holy ground and all…

  2. joe falco, austin texas

    This is a pre-quel worthy of Hollywood. Quit making comic books for the big screen. This story was amazing. American Gothic Horror or Pioneer Noir? Not sure how to classify it other than “must read”.

  3. Thanks for passing this on, Jim — and for your kind words, Joe.

    Pioneer Noir. I love it.

    FINN’s been optioned for the movies for a while now, and the script even exists. It’s very good. I was able to put my oar in and help with dialog for connective scenes that weren’t in the book. We’ll see, though. America, as you say, does love its comic books…

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