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The pitifulest thing

Finn A Novel Jon Clinch Random House: 292 pp., $23.95

February 18, 2007|Steve Almond | Steve Almond is the author of "The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories," "Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America" and a forthcoming collection of essays, "(Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions."

JON CLINCH has staked himself to a stiff challenge in his debut novel: casting Mark Twain's monstrous creation Pap Finn -- feckless father of Huck -- as a leading man. The resulting book is dark and often gripping, though marred by stylistic excess and a shortage of pathos.

I suspect the central academic achievement of "Finn" will be to transport the world's Twain scholars into a collective tizzy. Clinch has, as they say, taken liberties with the back story.

Pap Finn still winds up lying dead in a room scattered with strange artifacts, precisely where Huck finds him in Chapter 9 of "Huckleberry Finn." But Finn's descent into alcoholic misanthropy is predicated on a series of shocking revelations. Sound the spoiler alert!

Most notably, Finn has an insatiable lust for women of a darker hue. This predilection, we are given to understand, is an act of rebellion against his own father, a virulent racist born with a rusty nail where his heart should be.

The psychological math here is rudimentary. The eldest Finn's cruelty has turned his son into a self-hating "black sheep" of the family -- you may blame this cheap pun on Clinch, for he unwisely invokes it -- who trolls the Mississippi River for catfish by day and whiskey by night. He soon takes up with a black girl named Mary, an unhappy union that produces his only child, the curiously Caucasoid Huck.

Finn is not much of a family man. "He denies himself a bottle of whiskey this once," Clinch writes, "because he has plans to take some of his earnings around to the old blind bootlegger and get a jug of the poorer-quality stuff as a means of sacrificing on behalf of his dependents." The wit here stings, as it should.

Naturally, drink leads to trouble. Quick to infer an insult, Finn attacks a stranger in a tavern and nearly cuts the man's tongue out. Clinch captures the violence with aplomb. But his real gift lies in the elegant observation that follows: "Two of them help the cut man down the steps and up the hill to where the doctor lies dreaming of a place where incidents such as this do not happen."

Yes, I know the feeling.

Before long, Finn has driven off Mary and the child and launched a healthy side venture into senseless murder. His sole companion is the blind bootlegger, an irascible figure named -- watch for falling irony -- Bliss.

"[A]s the moon completes its circuit and Finn's head begins to throb he usually begins to ruminate upon the course of his life and the various hurtful influences upon it and how they have conspired to bring him to such a sad destination as this. Drinking in the deep woods with a blind man who tolerates him for pay. Tomorrow night he will return, but he will like it no better."

From this point, the novel speeds along with only an occasional terse conversation to spell the mayhem. Bracing as the action is, it proves wearying in the absence of our sympathies. As they say in the land of prime-time television, if you've seen one flayed corpse, you've seen 'em all.

Clinch can be a graceful writer, but he allows the flowers to run a bit thick through certain patches. Here, for instance, is his description of the hieroglyphics Finn paints on his walls, images that would seem to be of some symbolic import if one could discern what they are:

"The inscrutable outpourings bend and intermix, each one a tributary unto the others, until the whole expands ineluctably into a spiraling morass that drowns the mouths from which it has come and subsumes the space almost entirely in black."

Not getting a clear image? Take two spiraling morasses and call me in the morning.

Elsewhere, Clinch proves overly fond of simile. He describes the smell of a corpse rising "into the morning air like supplication." Finn wears a coat "as black as sin." His first murder victim is said to possess a head that "bobs upon his neck like a lascivious sunflower." A burning steamboat is a "variegated fountain of flame," which works just dandy until it is further described as looking "like some inexorable ghost ship" and, in the very next sentence, "like some cancerous thing alive."

Whether you can make sense of these descriptions (and I often couldn't), they violate the novelist's essential aim by calling attention to the writer at the expense of his fictional world.

My guess is that Clinch is making some effort to mimic the lyrical panache of Twain. But Twain, after all, was engaged in devising a picaresque, the world as viewed by an exuberant boy. Finn's story is not one of boundless possibility but inevitable ruin, a claustrophobic plunge. It begs for a more understated treatment.

It also begs for greater empathy. Clinch makes almost no effort to humanize his protagonist. The Pap Finn of this novel is far more sadistic than Twain's version, unredeemed to the end. His capacity for sin makes him pitiful, but he never qualifies as a tragic figure, because he never suffers the sort of sustained self-reflection that presages tragedy.

In one beautiful passage, Finn watches his son run fishing lines on the river. For a thrilling instant, one feels the dangerous beam of his paternal love. But the moment passes. Finn reverts to type and we are left, finally, with the stingy lesson that cruel fathers often produce cruel sons.

Of course, the great lesson of Twain's masterpiece is that no man's fate is ruled absolutely by his past and that even the child of a monster may, with the proper doses of love and imagination, struggle toward a liberation of the spirit.

This literary spinoff would have done better by its considerable ambitions had Clinch tried to find the same struggle within Finn. *

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