Finn: Cannibalism, I know it

OK, it’s not the Third Day. It’s not even close to the Third Day. But I’ve finally finished Finn and am ready to write about it.

Let’s start with R.C., my colleague, who pushed the book into my hands about two months ago and said, “What do you think?” He was referring to the advance reviewers’ copy, which had showed up in his mail box at work a day or two earlier, and specifically to the first page or two, a conversation between Finn and Bliss, the perennially inebriated blind distiller from whom the hero of the story got most of his poison. “I just hate this guy’s style,” R.C. muttered, “even if the premise is interesting.”

I hated the style too. Overblown sentences, wheeling off into diversions and redundancies, a constant sense of breathlessness. I wanted Jon Clinch to just STOP, sometimes. Just let a sentence be. But despite my discomfort with his style, like R.C. I got pulled into the story, which wove its way through scenes from Mark Twain’s original novel, and then digressed off to create a life and reason for Huck’s no-good daddy, Pap, reinvented as Clinch’s Finn.

In Clinch’s rambling tale, in which chapters revealing the grown Finn are interspersed with chapters flashing back to his youth as son of the hard-headed and brutally racist Judge, Pap’s backstory comes clear. Rather than a disreputable and abusive drunk, he can be seen as the victim of circumstances beyond his control. Always rebellious in the tightly controlled household run by the Judge, he runs afoul of his father over and over again, until he commits the ultimate crime, according to the racist elder Finn, and falls for a black girl.

****Caution, Spoiler follows****
Perhaps the most controversial premise of the novel is the suggestion that Huck was the daughter of the girl Finn brings home, a black runaway slave whom he rescues from slavery and seems for a time to genuinely love. Some of the gentlest and kindest writing in the book flows from the scenes in which Clinch describes Finn loving Mary, and later on in which he describes him taking the toddler Huck fishing. There, for a time,  young Finn seems to brim with promise, perhaps not the studious and obedient son whom his father desired to forge in a kiln of disapproval and cruelty, but still a human being with potential for kindness and grace. The moment at which he decides to protect the name of his young son is the turning point in the book. When Finn attacks Huck’s detractor and is sent to jail, something in him changes irrevocably. He returns brooding, and brutal. From then on, his life is marked by increasing alcoholism, violence and isolation.

For my taste, the transformation from the young Finn, who was potentially capable of finding salvation, to the brute devil who dies at the end of the novel happened too rapidly, and not quite seamlessly. The humanity Finn exhibits before his incarceration is too quickly erased. This, along with an affected tic from which almost all the characters seem to suffer, a propensity to say, “I know it” in confirmation of whatever needs confirming, keeps the book from my fully enthusiastic endorsement. The cannibalism too strikes me as a little too risque, too forced. Finn is a brute, true, but would he really skin a woman and serve her skin campfire-fried to an old blind man called Bliss? (Ignorance is….what a play on words).

The one regret I have about having read Finn now is that I haven’t read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in more than two decades, perhaps closer to three. I can’t remember enough about the book to know how closely Clinch’s scenes cohere with the original. I know his early chapters recreate some Huck Finn scenes from a different perspectives, Pap showing up in Huck’s room looking for the money, for example. And I know that he has painstakingly told the story of the house that Huck and Jim found floating down the river, including all the items within it: the milky white room with its walls covered in charcoal drawings of brute scenes, the gunshot body, the wooden leg, the women’s clothing. But I don’t know all the details well enough to feel confident in comparing the two.

R.C. is thinking of teaching both novels next fall. Perhaps I should sit in on the class, see what his students make of the classic alongside the contemporary novel. I just don’t know if I can take rereading those breathlessly redundant sentences again, or having to hear “I know it” echo in my head yet again.

Has anyone else read Finn? If so, I look forward to anything you might want to share about your experience of it.

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