Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Book Review - Finn: A Novel

I fell in love with the writing of Mark Twain in Junior High and High School. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was always one of my favorites, not only because of the fun adventures and outrageously ridiculous humor but also because of the great depth and thought of the story filled with so many layers and nuances of historical social dynamics and beliefs. As a result very naturally intrigued by Finn: A Novel, a new novel telling the story of Huck's father "Pap" Finn.

The book follows the life of Pap Finn (mostly just called "Finn" in the book as he never receives a true first name). There are a few scenes and recollections about his youth but mostly the novel focuses on his adult life in the time leading up to Huck's birth and the years that follow until the ultimate discovery of his death as outlined in the original novel by Twain. The organization of the chapters was occasionally disorienting with limited indication of timing since from one chapter to another we may jump forward or backward in time by a handful of years. It was only significantly disorienting once or twice but when it did happen I wondered as to the intent of such jumps other than perhaps to help the reader feel as unsteady and flailing as Finn was in his own life.

The tone, language and literary styling of the novel are impressive. The book is well written. In some regard there seems to be a desire to imitate Twain's rhetoric and uphold the 19th century language of the previous novel. But the tone and content of this book necessarily result in stylistic differences that make this a much darker novel even in the moments of levity. 'Finn' has some scenes which are indeed laughable but the tone makes them tragically funny as opposed to the laugh-out-loud humor of 'Huckleberry.'

We are given scenes outlining the strained relationship between Finn and his family members. Finn's father looks at Finn with absolute disgust and hatred that has gone on for years. Finn's brother provides token olive branches where he can but is limited by a need to remain in the good graces of his father and society. As a result, Finn is left to his own devices. His broken family life sends him into the world with a spiteful attitude and a feeling that everyone is out to get him and that the only person he can count on is himself. Fortunately Finn is capable enough to find odd jobs and thus scrapes to stay alive...but only barely so. And as his vices increase, his ability to survive diminishes.

As despicable as Finn was in the Twain novel, his portrayal here is taken down into even more depravity. Any attempts to try and soften him and make us sympathetic to his plight are quickly destroyed by his relentless return to despicable behavior. His vile actions are alluded to by Twain but they are readily presented and acted out in Clinch's book. Finn is involved in lewd drunkenness but also in brutality, rape and murder of others (primarily Blacks and especially women). While this novel doesn't have the gratuitous violence of a horror novel, it is definitely ratcheted up a notch for "literary fiction." Even though the scenes may not have been "as bad as they could be", the matter-of-fact nature of the scenes and Finn's apathetic attitude towards his behavior increased the problem of each scene. Fortunately there aren't a ton of sequences or this novel would be even more troubling. In some of the more poignant moments there is a glimmer of thoughtful contemplation by Finn and it almost seems as if he will try to present some redeeming qualities and become a character for which we can sympathize or pity. These glimpses are sadly more short lived than I would have hoped and when Finn's tale finally ends it's difficult to feel much compassion for him at all.

All of that said, it is difficult to wholly recommend Finn to my friends and family. I'm not saying "YOU" shouldn't read it...but I don't know necessarily who "YOU" are so I can't entirely make that call for you. But to the people that I normally recommend books to or discuss books with, this is not a recommendation. As a novel, it has plenty of good qualities and allows for some very thought provoking moments. It definitely exists as more than a simple 'foil' to the previous Twain novel. There is a depth here that lets it stand on its own merits. However, I feel like taking "Finn" without looking at "Huckleberry" would result in a much different reading...a reading that can be appreciated for writing style and quality but which may become less meaningful other than as an exploration into the disgusting behavior of a sadistic, racist, violent alcoholic in 19th century America. And for me, that is a difficult novel to swallow in any form. As far as what it does as a companion piece to "Huckleberry", I'm left with the feeling that Clinch did a good job at fleshing out Finn but at the end of the day, I don't feel like it was something that really "had to be done."

2.5 out of 5 stars

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