Mark Twain noted that he could never depict violence as completely and truthfully as it occurs in real life, particularly not when he wrote with a market of young boys in mind. He confessed once to a friend that to write the truth of such violence "would require ... a pen warmed up in hell." In Finn by Jon Clinch, you'll note that Clinch has no such problem in wielding that damned pen. Indeed, Finn might be the most violent book that I've ever read... not for depictions of battle scenes and carnage, but for small acts of unspeakable cruelty in cold blood. I warn you that if you're squeamish... well, then actually, you probably should read this book and learn a few things about yourself. And don't worry, no violent acts towards animals are depicted in the course of the book.

Finn does many things but perhaps what struck me most was the fact that it has an objective to not only to create a back-story for Huckleberry Finn's father, but to see just how far one can push the limits of violence in fiction. Our eyes might glaze over at the evening news and think nothing of the tragic violence there, but when it comes to a work of literature, we tend to balk. I say literature because Finn is certainly one of the finest works of literature that I've read this year. Jon Clinch is a master wordsmith with tremendous talent. I rarely underline things in books these days, but I found myself underlining simple phrases or fragments, just so I might return to bask in their beauty and grace at a later moment. One can easily call such writing poetry, for the words beg to be read aloud and lingered over.

Of course, many people do not associate "poetry" with the people and actions depicted within Finn. Our protagonist seems to be a man without conscience or care, living for himself alone in a crude and dirty existence. There are no simple southern days spent whitewashing picket fences here. I'm not questioning the focus, mind, simply noting the juxtaposition of such beautiful language with such a harsh setting. Finn is as fascinating as he is detestable, but he cannot be dismissed by a simple judgment -- his internal contradictions reach down into his very soul. Since Finn is already an adult by the time we come upon him, we never see a Finn clear of blame and in any way on the "right" side of morality. Finn seems to have his own moral code, even if it waxes and wanes with his needs. What we do see is a man who continues to make choices as though he will never feel the repercussions (even if he is unconsciously twisted by those choices) and there comes a point when you can no longer be redeemed, even by love. His descent makes for a twisted and fascinating tale. Clinch writes that this is Finn's book, and Finn is many things in his life, including a father to Huckleberry, the town drunk, a bigot, and a murderer. Calling this a "prequel" to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be incorrect, for while it certainly casts its net to earlier years, it also takes place right along side the events of Twain's novel, too. Clinch neatly fits in his narrative so that takes some liberties with characters, but never contradicts the original Twain text, even if it does pose some significant theories. While it's not important to have read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one might find Finn to be more rewarding with some knowledge of the text. Small details here and there cause the reader to delight in their own intelligence, as though they're in on the joke when they can pick up on people and objects that appear in Twain's original text.

The novel opens with a body slowly drifting down the Mississippi River. Both the body and the river are of supreme importance to the text, for the river will be our near-constant companion and the specter of the body will loom over the entire story to remind us of what has happened and what is sure to come. It is important to note even now that the body is stripped of its skin, skin that might identify the color of the woman that once animated the muscle. The color of one's skin is terribly important in the world of this novel, and perhaps to no character more than the woman whose body is found drifting down the river.

The story jumps back and forth along a timeline, so assume that if you feel something hasn't been sufficiently explained, soon enough the story will reach back to do so. Finn's father is the Judge, a loveless and bigoted man who is, just the same, highly respected in the town. He might be disappointed in his sickly younger son, but outright despises his degenerate and drunken firstborn. Finn owes his ramshackle home and supplementary income to his younger brother, who essentially cooks the books so he can slip his brother some money. Finn makes his "living" by fishing and selling whatever he catches to various establishments with various amounts of profit. (By "living" I also mean his whiskey money, as Finn seems to consume nothing else in such quantity as alcohol.) Primarily, he catches and sells catfish, the ultimate bottomfeeder that so nicely echoes Finn's own existence. The river is also Finn's primary source for acquiring other items that might be sold or might find a place in his home, from small things like nails to larger things, like a female companion who is referred to simply as "that woman" for quite a while in the text until we discover her story. After chance finds him on a steamboat, Finn foils the attempt by two black slaves (a father and daughter) to commandeer the vessel and sail to a free state. As a reward for these actions (and as payment for his skiff that was destroyed by the steamboat and, thus, led to his presence in the first place), Finn is given the daughter, Mary. Mary, who is educated and was treated rather decently by her previous mistress as far as slavery goes, is plunged into a much rougher life with a very rough man. Her motivation can make for extensive debate, largely stemming from why on earth she stays with Finn when it seems that the chance of escaping by risking death is a much more appealing prospect, and while words of love are never spoken, the emotion itself must be assumed. Finn has complicated ideas about blacks, ultimately viewing them as lesser creatures than whites but that doesn't stop him from essentially building a home with Mary and having a child with her. She is both his property and his lover, a black slave worth his contempt and yet an educated creature who reads him poetry. He is faithful to her as he is faithful to nothing else. Whether this stems from emotional attachment or the fact that this is the only kind of woman who can't reject him and demand that he change his ways, well, that's something to ponder, and perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. It is a complicated relationship that seems incapable of yielding happiness, and yet it does seem to result in a contented family for a time.

The revolutionary idea that Finn poses is that Huckleberry Finn is the son of a black woman and it's only the fact that Huck has light skin that later allows him to unconsciously "pass." This question of parentage is a significant issue at a time when having a black mother would mean that Huck, too, could be claimed as a slave. As a result, some incredibly heartbreaking moments occur late in the book, involving Mary's struggle with these facts. This is one in a series of tragedies for Mary, who upholds the literary (and real-life) tradition of minority women enduring extraordinary tragedy with grace. Mary is not the only example of such in the novel and perhaps this other woman suffers even greater sorrows than Mary, but she, too, can also lay the blame for those sorrows at Finn's door. When it comes to sins, perhaps the greatest are not those that require action, but those where one does nothing to stop a terrible deed from being committed, thus tacitly condoning it.

My book club had the great pleasure of being able to invite Jon Clinch to discuss his book with us, which was an incredibly enlightening experience in terms of actually speaking with the man who was responsible for such a novel. I challenge anyone to read this book and not, at some point or other, wonder about the author himself who would conceive of such situations and characters, somehow able to find the words to describe what might seem to be unspeakable violence. It's not the kind of violence that might seem "entertaining" in any way, but it's violence that occurs in the world nonetheless and most of us probably want to forget that fact. No such chance here. Yet Jon Clinch is a very pleasant and well-spoken man, a loving husband and father whose liberal inclinations led him to slip a Dick Cheney joke into Finn at the last minute (hint: look for a scene involving an accidental shooting and "Whittington"). Clinch speaks eloquently about a novel that is regularly denounced for its content; he's had a great deal of practice in answering questions about the grislier aspects of it. He even told us a great secret that I disclose here: in order to keep up the constant stream of rather terrible events, he had a rule that something dreadful had to happen every seventy-five pages. My response to this was, "It was really only every seventy-five?!" Indeed, the stream of violence is as steady as the ever-moving waters of the Mississippi itself, which seems so at odds with this lovely man who lives in Vermont and dotes upon his daughter. Of course, Clinch is also fiercely intelligent and patiently eager to argue out the fact that violence exists all around us and has shaped our literature and society, even as books increasingly become less violent. To remove it from fiction is to delude ourselves into thinking it is no longer in our lives when the nightly news confirms the opposite.

Of course, if you let the violence overwhelm you, then you can miss out on many of the other terribly interesting things that this novel does, particularly exploring those complicated ideas about race. After all, in Twain circles, it's evidently quite a controversial idea to make Huck half black (personally, I had always assumed Twain was implying something about Native American ancestry in his dusky complexion and strange reserves of knowledge). In today's world, we tell ourselves with increasing frequency that race "doesn't matter" (or at least "shouldn't matter"), and so it is jarring to explore a novel that purposely calls our attention to the facts of a racist time. Another major theme of the novel concerns the sins of the father as we examine Finn and the Judge, both terrible fathers for very different reasons, who have lasting impact on their children, no matter the age of the child.

Whether the reader finds Finn to be a sympathetic character is something that I cannot predict, for even as I loved the novel, I admit that I took comfort in the knowledge that Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer one day find the body of Huck's pap in a floating house. The knowledge of future justice (or at least an end to one man's capacity for terrible actions) is perhaps the only kindness that we are allowed in the stream of unrelenting violence. The price of this is the knowledge that worse actions happened in the real world at this time, actions grounded in bigotry and hatred, and a great many of those perpetrators went unpunished. For Finn, he might meet a bad end in a bad life, but I cannot be sorry for the conception and telling of his story. Finn is worth the intense scrutiny and study... and Clinch more than acquits himself of being a worthy teller of the tale.

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