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Review-a-Day
Esquire
Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007
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Finn: A Novel

by Jon Clinch

Father Figure of the Month

A review by Tom Chiarella

Say what you want -- that I am damaged, that I am a coward, that I lack a kind of literary vision -- but I never wanted to live like Huckleberry Finn. The dark, slow-moving river terrified me. The adults who surrounded him seemed delusional, dangerous, and -- worse -- indifferent to him. He seemed to wrestle with the demons of a culture that was pretty willing to leave him to rot on the river. Way too much for a kid from Rochester, New York. But that doesn't mean I didn't care about Huck or wonder what lead to his glimmering half-life—one foot in the mud, one foot caught in the leap toward escape.

Well, like all boys, he originated in his father, a figure who appears in Twain's novel only as a bloated corpse but who is the focus of Jon Clinch's first novel, Finn. In prose that properly refuses to do battle against Twain's most luminous work, Clinch carves out his own river and the man who made Huck Finn the boy to end all boys. You page forward to see what sort of a horror this guy might be, but the story drags you downstream. Jailed for killing a man who didn't buy his catfish, Finn Sr. is a nasty, thieving, violent lout, largely a forgotten man living on the river's edge. The great literary experiment of the book (spoiler alert here, for all the academic boneheads who root for this kind of thing) is that Huck turns out to be half black. The exploration of race, uncompelling and practiced, would not be worth noting if it weren't for the fact that Clinch gets one thing so very right. Fear is a kind of storyteller in itself. Sometimes boys have reasons to believe they might have sprung, like Huck, from the mud beneath their feet. They might even hope for it.


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