Jon Clinch,
(Random House, 2007)

As soon as I heard about this novel, I immediately wondered if Jon Clinch had been inspired by Shelly Fishkin's fascinating monologue "Was Huck Black?"

Clinch, in fact, does pay his respects to Fishkin in the afterword of this book. Fishkin proposed that Mark Twain had based Huckleberry Finn on two young blacks he knew and liked very much: a 10-year-old boy named Jimmy and a youth named Jerry. In Jimmy we see much of Huck's sociability, loquatiousness and total lack of inhibition and pretension, and in Jerry we find Huck's mother-wit and plain common sense. But Clinch takes Fishkin's premise to a whole new level and raises the stakes stratospherically: in Finn, Clinch gives us a Huckleberry who actually is black, or at least half-black, the child of Pap and Pap's black mistress, Mary, a runaway slave.

Is a biracial Huck within the realm of possibility, even if Twain never suggested that Huck was anything but poor white? We can consider several factors: Twain tells us nothing of Huck's mother; and as brutally as blacks were treated in the antebellum South, miscegenation, almost always in the form of master/slave or overseer/slave rape, was so common that there were hundreds of thousands of biracial offspring of such matings ranging in color from white to black and every shade in between. And in any event, Clinch isn't trying to re-tell the story of Huckleberry Finn. Finn is Pap's book, and Huck is the incidental result of a relationship as inevitable as it is tragic.

Huck's Pap is one of Twain's most interesting, if unlovable, creations; a loathsome, illiterate, unwashed drunk who could probably be smelled 10 miles downwind. Clinch's Pap, the subject of this excellent first novel, is James Finn, the older son and black sheep of an upper-middle-class Southern family; his father is a judge, no less. Judge Finn lives with his wife and younger son in a mansion staffed by poor whites; he hates blacks so deeply he won't have them on the premises. He's already disinherited his worthless scion for his alcoholism and laziness, but Finn has committed the ultimate abomination in his father's eyes: he's not only living with a black woman, he's sired a half-breed child with her and forever sullied the illustrious family name.

Judge Finn may be one of the most despicable characters invented in American literature, but he's no hypocrite. He hates blacks on a visceral level almost too deep to be felt. He's a man absolutely devoid of any kind of self-doubt. But Clinch's Finn is a man trapped between the mores he inherited from his father and his own feelings for Mary; he treats her like dirt, abuses her casually, but can't live without her. And when Mary has finally had enough and runs away downriver, taking Huck with her (preferring the actual slavery of Missouri to the abusive hell of life with Finn), he follows her. Finn can take or leave Huck (actually, he'd prefer to take the $6,000 Huck found in Injun Joe's cave and leave Huck), but Mary is a part of him, a part he both needs and despises. It's this relationship and how he can't deal with it that is the heart of this book.

Judge Finn may be a monster, but the fruit didn't fall very far from this tree; Finn himself acts in ways so loathsome we wonder how Mary put up with him as long as she did. But unlike the judge, who is totally unclouded by pangs of conscience, Finn has conscience enough when he isn't drunk and raving or stuporous to reflect on what Mary means to him. It's a love/hate relationship doomed from the beginning. Clinch's Finn isn't a one-dimensional character by any means; we loathe him and pity him by turns. And when Judge Finn issues his ultimatum, Finn's fate, as well as Mary's, is sealed.

Clinch has sense enough not to try to out-Twain Twain (only Twain could so brilliantly have caught the inflections of Huck's, Jim's and Pap's speech patterns), but in spare, concise, eloquent prose, he's given us some unforgettable characters that are totally believable. We meet a few familiar characters again in this book, such as Judge Thatcher and the Widow Douglas. And although Twain already told us that Huck and Jim found Pap shot dead in the ruined house floating down the Mississippi River, Clinch gives us a brilliant, inspired account of how Finn meets his end.

And what did Finn finally pass on to Huck? Clinch's Huck is his father's son in more ways than one: light enough to pass for white, with his father's shrewd intelligence and his disgust for school, church and all the other tiresome traps of civilization, ultimately trapped himself by his black blood in a society that sees blacks as something less than human. But out of spite for the woman he loved and hated, who ultimately left him, Finn lies to Huck about his parentage, telling him that Mary wasn't his real mother but only raised him, and that his real mother was a white woman long dead. By symbolically robbing Huck of his real mother, Clinch says in his afterword, Finn set Huck free to to pursue whatever fate Twain had in store for him. Twain would have loved it.

by Judy Lind
24 March 2007

Buy it from