And now for the good news
First off, what a cool cover! Simple, elegant, evocative, and very representative of the book.
Finn. Wow. What an incredible feat Jon Clinch pulled off, especially for a first-time novelist. I loved this book. It’s not often I run across prose as lovely and powerful as this.
Mark Twain’s works are sacred to me, yet in spite of the few surprises Clinch dealt, I took no offense at his playing in Twain’s venerable sandbox; in fact I found it quite enjoyable to ride along as he assembled the backstory of Huck’s Pap, and filled in some missing bits of timeline from Twain’s novel without subverting the continuity already established therein. An amazing accomplishment, as was the way Clinch managed to make me root for a protagonist as loathsome and despicable as they come.
There were many times when I just had to stop and admire a particularly wonderful sentence, and not without more than a dash of envy. Check these out:
As he chews, methodical as some old ruminant, these baked-black berries beneath the latticework of their pale and tender crust speak also of innocence undisturbed, of childhoods spent around tables like this and around others less elevated and bountiful, of secrets buried beneath time and earth and flowing water …
Huck laughs as only a boy can, illuminating the river valley with an arc of sound that bends across the water like a handful of thrown coins.
… and even in the forced absence of whiskey a vision passes before his eyes unbidden not of snakes nor of spiders but of the turgid Mississippi beneath his window on the Illinois side crossed and recrossed with a cumulative ghostly weavework of fishing boats’ accidental paths and steamboats’ cautious trajectories achurn with white foam beneath which and supporting all lies dark water and darker history.
Damn, I wish I’d written those gems.
I have a few quibbles such as his extremely sparing use of commas resulting in long run-on sentences that can be interpreted in different ways depending on where one’s mind supplies the beats the pauses the missing punctuation and serving mainly to.
Stop. I’m starting to write like him. But that brings up another quibble, his refusal to use the simple yet eloquent em-dash to represent the end of a sentence that has been cut off, and use of a period instead, which signifies an entirely different inflection.
Since Mr. Clinch is obviously well-versed in English, I assume that both of these were conscious stylistic decisions on his part, and I respect that, but still. A bit off-putting at times.
However, I still gave the book five stars on Amazon and Goodreads, and that’s because neither of these complaints detracted from the beautiful, evocative writing that made this book an absolute joy to read.
Nor was I bothered by his use of alternating timelines, one leading up to the murder of Mary and one following it, both advancing side-by-side at an equal pace. Some readers have said they found this difficult to follow; and it is. But to me, that’s part of the attraction of the book. I found it a pleasurable mental exercise to piece together the entire chronology as it was revealed a slice at a time. (Those who know me might not find this surprising, as it’s a literary trick I used myself in A Pebble Tossed.)
As dark and harrowing as it was to witness Finn’s descent into alcoholism and depravity, it was at the same time totally captivating. This is the best book I’ve read in quite some time.