Friday, March 23, 2007


I have long been an admirer of Mark Twain's work, fiction and non-fiction alike. That admiration, and the negative comments that I heard about Jon Clinch's first novel, Finn, almost convinced me to ignore the book. But after seeing comments about Finn on two of the blogs that I regularly read, book/daddy and A Garden Carried in the Pocket, I couldn't resist any longer. And I'm happy that I didn't.

Finn is not an easy book to read because, in its own way, it is even more horrifying than the fantastical books by writers such as Thomas Harris who splash gore around to such a degree that their books lose all sense of realism. The horrible crimes that are committed in Finn, on the other hand, always make the reader cringe simply because they seem to be happening to real people in a real world. As is so often the case in a man like Finn, he is the product of cold and abusive parents who warped him from the beginning. He is in constant rebellion against his father, a town judge who rules his courtroom and his home with an iron fist and who has no more sympathy for his sons than he does for the criminals he sees in court.

Clinch, of course, begins with the world created by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn but he fleshes out that world in a way that Twain himself was unable to do in the period in which he wrote. Using incidents and characters from Twain's book, Clinch provides the back story to Huck's tale that explains much of what Twain had to leave unsaid in the original.

The elder Finn depends on the Mississippi River for his very life. The river provides him with the catfish that he sells or exchanges in town for the supplies that keep him alive. More importantly to Finn, it is the sale of those same fish that make it possible for him to consume the amount of alcohol that makes life worth living for him. Equally important, the Mississippi is always there to cover a man's sins and, as the book begins, one of those sins, a dead woman who has been skinned, is floating down the middle of the river toward town. But since Finn is a psychopath this is hardly the last of his crimes that the reader will witness.

The most controversial aspect of the novel is Clinch's contention that Huck was a mulatto whose mother had been purchased off a steamboat in slave territory and taken back to Illinois against her will. That Huckleberry Finn was a black child is not a new theory, and Clinch has made that possibility the centerpiece of his novel. That fact alone determines the ultimate fate of not only Finn but of Mary, Huck's mother, and it leads to the complete moral collapse of Judge Finn.

This may not be an easy book to read, and I don't feel that I should say that I enjoyed it, but it is definitely one that will stay with me for a while. I've read many books that I can barely remember any details of just a year or two later. Finn is in no danger of becoming one of those.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. I find it odd that the most controversial idea is whether or not Huck was black. Probably because I separated this book from Twain in spite of all of the connections. I also never felt that Finn would win the Judge's approval and was curious about why this son was an outcast so early. The conflict betwee father and son was already in play when the first childhood incident about the laundry occurred.

    See...I will be struggling with many of the events in this book for a long time. Made an impression, didn't it?

  2. I suppose that Huck's race is controversial to so many people because it reflects so directly on his relationship with Jim. A young white boy trying to help a slave escape has a different feel than if a mulatto youngster was trying to do the same thing. I think that the "purists" who are already unhappy with Clinch for having the nerve to use so much of Twain's story take particular offense with such a drastic change of character for Huck.

    You're right, this one made a heck of an impression on me and I'm still trying to figure out some of its implications.

  3. I have been curious about this book, but I have not yet picked it up. I really have not read much Twain, and not Huck Finn--only Tom Sawyer, so I feel like I need to go back and read that first.

  4. I would suggest that you read "Huckleberry Finn" before you read "Finn" because it's fun to see where Twain ends and Clinch begins. It's the way that Clinch provides a back story for Twain's work that makes this book especially interesting.

    If you can work both books into your reading schedule, I think that you'll be happy with the result.