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Book Review : An Unlikely Huck Finn Adrift on a Polluted River

January 14, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The River in Winter by David Small (Norton: $16.95)

If McCabe, the auto parts salesman who got Joe Weatherfield's mother pregnant, had only had $300 for an abortion, "I'd never have seen the light of day," Joe reflects at the start of "The River in Winter." "It would have saved me a lot of trouble," he adds.

A reader who happened to open the book at the wrong end would observe that Joe, the narrator, tells his story from Maine's state prison. Clearly, there was a lot of trouble to be saved.

Joe's tough and sprightly tone is the main strength of his unhappy story, which is over by the time he is 17, and convicted on charges of shooting his grandfather and hacking the town sheriff to death. It lends a faint Huck Finn-like note to his puzzled struggles with a deck heavily stacked against him: Huck Finn on a polluted river, with mercury-contaminated catfish and corn bread soaked with DDT.

Beware of the Bullet

In fact, Joe is innocent; though quite a bit less likable than a Huck Finn should be. His grandfather, Henry Weatherfield, is his roots and he is profoundly attached to them. The old man also turns out to be his ruin. As a captain in World War I, he shot a young German. All things go round and come back, he tells his grandson. He is convinced that the bullet, periodically returning, has spoiled his life and that of those close to him.

"He used to take me by the neck," Joe recalls, "and guide me down the back steps and across the lawn when we started out for a walk, edgily glancing around, prepared to push me to the ground if that bullet happened to be traveling through Dunnocks Head on that particular day."

It is a lively conceit. Shared by Henry and Joe, it nicely characterizes the old man and the young one as two originals at odds with the world around them. Shared by the author, David Small, it makes for an excessively doom-laden clock.

Joe is a runaway at 16. His mother, who sleeps around, has taken up with a man who tries to bully him. Joe steals his revolver and goes to seek out his grandfather in Maine. The old man, a broken-down doctor, lives like a hermit, unkempt, unfed and generally self-neglected.

Tough as he believes himself to be, Joe is touched by Henry's aged defiance. He cooks for him, cleans his house, takes him for walks. Small is very good with their gradual bristly rapprochement; suspicion and trust alternate, a small but serviceable two-stroke engine that chugs agreeably along.

Toward the outside world, though, Joe is all defiance. He gets into a fight with Summers, the local sheriff. He has an affair with Kathleen, daughter of Judge Fiske, the local big shot; he loves her, but treats her with grudging suspicion.

Joe's prickliness has a lot to contend with. In a highly colored episode, he and Henry rescue Kathleen, who is being held hostage by the judge's stableman. A horse has kicked the man's son, fracturing his skull. Henry performs a trepanning in the barn and saves the boy's life. The deranged stableman releases Kathleen; later, the sheriff guns him down in cold blood.

Bribery and a Beating

Joe is a witness to the killing; the judge, who is the sheriff's political patron, urges him to keep his mouth shut and offers to send him to college and look after him. Summers, more brutal and direct, beats him up and finally goes after him with a rifle, but kills Henry by mistake.

All this creates melodramatic engorgement. The judge is an unctuous crook, and the author never lets up on the unctuousness. Summers is a monster out of control; in fighting him, Joe becomes something of a monster himself. The final scene, in which he carries his dead grandfather around in the winter woods for a couple of days, talking to him and stalking Summers, is Gothic and crude.

The author's talent is for a wry and smaller-scaled naturalness. Here he has Joe's mother passing out, and spilling her drink on her dog, who was asleep beside her chair:

"Cicero clawed the carpet till he got his feet under him and shook the ice cubes off his back. The old dog looked shocked and indignant. He hadn't been up this late at night for years. He stood in the middle of the floor studying the walls of the room. I guess he was looking for poltergeists. Then with an unforgiving air, he waddled from the room."

The poltergeists are not really needed, perhaps, but this is a first-rate passage, and much livelier than the large passion and bloodshed at the end. I like Small's mimesis a lot better than his nemesis.

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