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Giving new life to classic characters

A novel focusing on Huck Finn's drunken father is the latest example of telling a different side of a story.

March 18, 2007|Julia M. Klein | Special to The Times

Harleysville, Pa. — FROM his first adolescent encounter with Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Jon Clinch says he has been haunted by the scene in which Huck and Jim find the corpse of Huck's father on the Mississippi River. All his life, Twain's "image of the floating house" and "the dead man, lying face down with a bullet in his back" stayed with this 52-year-old former high school English teacher and advertising agency owner.

Twain left Pap Finn surrounded by "old greasy cards," "old whisky bottles," black cloth masks, men's and women's clothing, a boy's straw hat, and (in Huck's colorful narration) "all over the walls, the ignorantest kind of words and pictures." To Clinch, the effect was "so peculiar, so horrifying, so bizarre, it was almost like a scene from a thriller or a slasher movie."

Scholars, he says, have generally identified the setting as a brothel. "But what if it's not?" Clinch asked himself. "What if all these peculiar things are clues that Twain left for telling us the true secret history of this man?"

That question was the inspiration for "Finn," Clinch's debut novel, which he wrote on his kitchen table in a five-month "fever dream." The book, Random House's lead title for spring, is a terrifying tale of two murders, which climax two artfully linked narratives.

Written in a style that Clinch says deliberately echoes the King James Bible and William Faulkner (and incorporating a slave ship vignette from Herman Melville's novella "Benito Cereno"), "Finn" offers a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a sociopath, as well as an audacious reinterpretation of Twain's masterpiece.

The critical reception has been mostly rapturous. "Clinch re-imagines Finn in a strikingly original way, replacing Huck's voice with his own magisterial vision," Ron Charles wrote in the Washington Post. The Times' reviewer, Steve Almond, was more restrained, describing "Finn" as "dark and often gripping, though marred by stylistic excess and a shortage of pathos."

Will Murphy, Clinch's editor at Random House, who won the manuscript at auction for a mid-six-figure advance, lauds the novel's ambition. Clinch uses "a vaguely menacing, violent, alcoholic, racist character," Murphy says, "to address all of the dark undercurrents in Twain's America: racism, violence, paternity."

"Finn" is the latest example of a burgeoning -- and commercially successful -- literary genre: works that appropriate minor characters from major fiction or drama and award them starring roles.

While drawing on classics is a venerable tradition, Jean Rhys took a revolutionary leap in "Wide Sargosso Sea," her 1966 retelling of Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" from the perspective of Mr. Rochester's mad Creole wife. In Tom Stoppard's 1967 drama "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead," the playwright reinvented "Hamlet" as the adventures of two doomed Danish courtiers. "Grendel," John Gardner's 1971 novella, gave voice to the monster of the medieval epic "Beowulf" -- and was particularly important to Clinch, two of whose short stories were published by Gardner in the literary journal MSS.

Under U.S. copyright law, books published before 1923 are in the public domain. But borrowing from more recent works still under copyright can be legally problematic. In 1999, Martin Garbus, a New York attorney whose clients have included Lenny Bruce, Alger Hiss and Lauren Bacall, successfully fought attempts by Vladimir Nabokov's estate to block publication of Pia Pera's "Lo's Diary," a retelling of "Lolita" (1955) from the nymphet's point of view. But two years later, when the estate of Margaret Mitchell tried to scuttle Alice Randall's "The Wind Done Gone," a reinterpretation of "Gone with the Wind" (1936) from a slave perspective, Garbus switched sides, representing the estate. A federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling and allowed publication.

In these cases, pitting 1st Amendment concerns against intellectual property rights, Garbus says his positions were not inconsistent. "The question is, 'What is the extent of the creativity?' " he says, but he concedes that the standard is a subjective one.

For reasons both legal and historical, 19th century American fiction has seemed especially ripe for revision. The trend may represent a delayed reaction to the "new social history" of the 1970s, in which women, minorities and working people emerged from the background to assume bigger speaking parts.

"Finn" was preceded by Nancy Rawles' "My Jim: A Novel" (2005), which focused on the runaway slave Jim's wife, Sadie. Geraldine Brooks' Pulitzer Prize-winning "March" (2005) follows the absent father from Louisa May Alcott's young adult classic "Little Women," a Civil War chaplain who (in Brooks' version) confronts both battlefield horrors and a formidable slave woman. Sena Jeter Naslund's "Ahab's Wife, or, the Star-Gazer" (1999), spins a feminist tale about a feisty young woman every bit Ahab's equal, or better.

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