Finn: A Novel

Finn: A Novel

4.3 34
by Jon Clinch

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In this masterful debut by a major new voice in fiction, Jon Clinch takes us on a journey into the history and heart of one of American literature’s most brutal and mysterious figures: Huckleberry Finn’s father. The result is a deeply original tour de force that springs from Twain’s classic novel but takes on a fully realized life of its own.

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In this masterful debut by a major new voice in fiction, Jon Clinch takes us on a journey into the history and heart of one of American literature’s most brutal and mysterious figures: Huckleberry Finn’s father. The result is a deeply original tour de force that springs from Twain’s classic novel but takes on a fully realized life of its own.

Finn sets a tragic figure loose in a landscape at once familiar and mythic. It begins and ends with a lifeless body–flayed and stripped of all identifying marks–drifting down the Mississippi. The circumstances of the murder, and the secret of the victim’s identity, shape Finn’s story as they will shape his life and his death.

Along the way Clinch introduces a cast of unforgettable characters: Finn’ s terrifying father, known only as the Judge; his sickly, sycophantic brother, Will; blind Bliss, a secretive moonshiner; the strong and quick-witted Mary, a stolen slave who becomes Finn’s mistress; and of course young Huck himself. In daring to re-create Huck for a new generation, Clinch gives us a living boy in all his human complexity–not an icon, not a myth, but a real child facing vast possibilities in a world alternately dangerous and bright.

Finn is a novel about race; about paternity in its many guises; about the shame of a nation recapitulated by the shame of one absolutely unforgettable family. Above all, Finn reaches back into the darkest waters of America’s past to fashion something compelling, fearless, and new.

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Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
Admittedly, part of the dark thrill here is "finding out" the back story that fans of Huckleberry Finn have long wondered about -- Who would ever have had a child with Pap? How did he end up naked and dead on that floating house? -- but this isn't just a creative appendix to an American classic. Clinch reimagines Finn in a strikingly original way, replacing Huck's voice with his own magisterial vision -- one that's nothing short of revelatory.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this darkly luminous debut, Finn, the namesake of the title, is not Twain's illustrious Huck, but Huck's father, "Pap." As the novel opens, an African-American woman's bloated corpse floats downriver from Lasseter, Ill., toward the slave territory of St. Petersburg, Mo. In the Lasseter woods, Finn-a dangerous, bigoted drunk-tells his blind bootlegger friend, Bliss, that he's finally "quit" his on-again, off-again African-American companion Mary, the mother of Finn's second son (also, confusingly, named Huck). Chronically short on money, Finn is shunned by his father (Adams County Judge James Manchester Finn) and by his brother, Will. Finn does odd jobs, traps catfish and claims tutelary rights to Huckleberry's share of Injun Joe's gold. (In this last, he is thwarted by Widow Douglas and Judge Thatcher, high-handed and stifling as ever.) The opaque in medias res narrative then backs up to detail Finn and Mary's life together: his drinking, his stint in the penitentiary following an assault (sentenced by his own father), Mary's rising debts and Finn's attempts at restitution. As the nature of the woman's murder becomes clear, Clinch lyrically renders the Mississippi River's ceaseless flow, while revealing Finn's brutal contradictions, his violence, arrogance and self-reproach. If Clinch's debut falls short of Twain's achievement, it does further Twain's fiction. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Working from a few tantalizing hints in Mark Twain's text and building on recent trends in Twain scholarship, first-time novelist Clinch fleshes out the shadowy figure of Huckleberry Finn's father, known as Finn. In Clinch's version, Finn is the black sheep of his family—a barely literate drunkard who supports his habit by trading catfish for whiskey. His father is a bigoted circuit court judge, and his brother is an unctuous attorney. Finn lives in a rundown cabin on the riverbank with his beautiful black mistress and their pale mulatto child, Huck, but he knows that to reconcile with his father he must sever all ties with the woman. Clinch meticulously follows Twain's lead, concocting plausible backstories for the Widow Douglas and the Thatcher family and reconstructing the circumstances of Finn's death based on the clues that Huck's friend Jim found in the original novel. The Mississippi River is a character in its own right, prominently featured in each chapter. Every fan of Twain's masterpiece will want to read this inspired spin-off, which could become an unofficial companion volume. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ10/1/06.]
—Edward B. St. John
Kirkus Reviews
The Finn in question is not Huck, but his father, a "strange sad monster" in newcomer Clinch's bold and deeply disturbing work. Bad as he was in Twain's masterpiece, here Pap Finn has ballooned into something far worse: "Incarnate personal evil." Clinch eschews a linear narrative, looping back and forth between time periods; he aims to cast a wide net, pillorying not just one individual but the pathology of racism. That began with Pap's own father, Judge Finn, who paid double for a white servant to avoid proximity to blacks. Pap inherits the racism while hungering for black women, the choicest of forbidden fruit. The woman who lasts the longest is Mary, stolen by Finn off a sternwheeler. He locks her up in a cabin on the Judge's grounds until they're discovered and banished; Finn strangles the tattletale responsible (his first murder). Finn and Mary move to a ramshackle house by the Mississippi; a savvy riverman, Finn runs his trotlines, sells his fish and spends the proceeds on whiskey. In time, Mary gives birth to Huck, who can pass for white, a huge relief to Finn. A few incidents duplicate those in Twain, but the novels could not be more different; instead of Huck's unlettered child's voice, we have an omniscient narrative, grave, erudite and rich in the secretions of adult knowledge; terse dialogue acts as an effective counterpoint. All along, Clinch's intent is to probe the nature of evil. Mary and Huck briefly escape Finn's drunken reign of terror and are taken in by the Widow Douglas; Finn reclaims them and strangles Mary in her sleep, then skins her like a rabbit. Much later, Finn scribbles incriminating drawings on his walls; whether or not they show a conscience at work, theywill lead directly to Finn's own murder by another black woman, his next intended victim. Despite needlessly confusing chronology, a memorable debut, likely to make waves. Agent: Jeff Kleinman/Graybill & English Literary Agency

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Chapter 1
Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.
It proceeds as do all things moving down the Mississippi in the late summer of the year, at a stately pace, as if its blind eyes were busy taking in the blue sky piled dreamily deep with cloud. There will be thunder by suppertime and rain to last the whole night long but just now the early day is brilliant and entirely without flaw. How long the body has been floating would be a mystery if any individual had yet taken note of its passage and mused so upon it, but thus far, under that sky of blue and white and upon this gentle muddy bed aswarm with a school of sunfish and one or two smallmouth bass darting warily as thieves, it has passed only empty fields and stands of willow and thick brushy embankments uninhabited.
A crow screams and flaps off, bearing an eye as brown and deep as the Mississippi herself.
Sunday morning, early, and the river is without traffic.
An alligator gar, eight feet if it’s an inch, rises deathlike from the bottom and fastens its long jaw upon a hipbone, which snaps like rotten wood and comes away. The body entire goes under a time or two, bobbing and turning, the eggs of blowflies scattering into the water like thrown rice. The urgent sunfish eddy. The bluebottles hover, endlessly patient, and when the body has recovered its equilibrium and resumed its downward course they settle once more.
Boys note its passage first, boys from the village taking the long way to Sunday school, and their witness is as much nature’s way as is the slow dissolution of the floating body into the stratified media of air and water. The corpse is not too very far from shore and clearly neither dog nor deer nor anything but man.
“I’ll bet it’s old Finn,” says one of them, Joe or Tom or Bill or perhaps some other. On this Sunday morning down by the riverbank they are as alike as polished stones. “My pap says they’ll fish him from the river one day for sure.”
“Go on,” says another.
“Yes sir. A worthless old drunk like that.”
“Go on,” says the other again. He picks up a flat stone and tests it in his hand, eyeing the crow, which has returned and sunken its beak into a pocket of flesh. “Shows how much you know. That ain’t even a man.”
“I reckon you think it’s a mule.”
“It’s a woman, no question.”
The lot of them go jostling together and squinting into the sunrise and blinking against the glare on the water as if the only thing superior to the floating corpse of a man would be the floating corpse of a woman, as if seeking in unison for a lesson in anatomy and never mind the cost.
Finally, from one of them or another but in the end from the childish heart in each save the learned one, this confession: “How can you tell?”
“Men float facedown. Anybody knows that.” Skipping the stone across the water to flush the crow, ruining his good trousers with the offhand brush of muddy fingers.
They draw straws, and as the unlucky boy lights out toward the village to enlist an adult the rest of them locate a skiff and cast off and make for the body. They hook her with a willow switch, these boys inured to dead things, and they drag her like bait to shore. One of them has been keeping a dead cat on a string for a week now, a kitten really, just a poor stiff dried husk won exactly this way, string and all, in a game of mumblety-peg.
The corpse floats low in the water, bottoming out in the mud that sucks at heel and buttock and drooping wrist. During its journey down the river it has failed to swell in the common way of corpses left in the sun. It lacks for skin, all of it, from scalp to sole. Nothing remains but sinew and bone and scraps of succulent yellow fat that the crows have not yet torn free.
One boy panics and loses his balance and falls into the water, his clothes spoiled for Sunday.
The bootlegger stirs his fire, oblivious to the sparks that circle upward into the night sky. He hears everything, every whisper in the dry grass of the pathway that leads from behind his shack, every snapping twig in the surrounding woods, every wingbeat of sparrow or jay or owl. “You can’t steal whiskey from old Bliss,” he likes to say, as if anyone would stoop so low as to steal whiskey from a blind man.
He repeats this reassurance now to Finn, who has proven him wrong before. “That’s so,” says Finn.
Pleased with himself, Bliss cackles until he coughs. Then he spits between his crooked teeth into the fire, where the sputum lands with a satisfying sizzle. “You got a jug?”
“ ’Course I got a jug.” Finn is as regular around these premises as the weather, even more regular than Bliss knows. But tonight his first purpose is neither to buy whiskey nor to steal it but to dispose of something in Bliss’s perpetual fire. He has a tow sack between his feet, filthy even in the firelight and slowly leaking something into the dust. He bumps the blind man’s knee with his jug, a signal.
“Go on get it yourself,” says Bliss. “Can’t you see I’m occupied?”
“I’ll tend. You pour. Give me that stick.”
Bliss won’t let it go. “Leave an old man be. I reckon you know where I keep it.”
“I reckon I do, if I could find it in the dark.”
He has a point, so Bliss hands over the stick and limps off into the woods muttering to himself like an old priest.
Finn unties the tow sack and lays out its contents, long strips dark and dimly glistening, pieces of flayed flesh identically sliced save one. Their regularity in width and length and thickness speaks of a huntsman’s easy skill and a plotter’s furtive patience and something else too. He chooses one and throws it upon the fire, where it sizzles and smokes and curls in upon itself as sinuously as a lie.
“Hope you brought some for me,” says Bliss from the depths of the woods.
“There’s plenty.” Throwing another piece into the fire to blacken. “Bring a couple of them jars when you come back. We’ll have ourselves a time.”
Bliss, weighed down with Finn’s crockery jug of forty-rod, adjusts his course and shuffles down the path toward the cabin. Halfway along he uses his head at last, plants the jug midpath like a tombstone, and makes for home unencumbered, counting off the paces so as not to stub his unshod foot during the journey back.
By firelight Finn locates the piece he’s set aside for his host. He clears hot ash from a rock and places it there in the manner of an offering.
“I ain’t had nothing but beans all week,” says Bliss as he squats on his log. He swirls whiskey to cleanse a pair of canning jars. One of them is cracked about the rim and fit to tear someone’s lip, and this one Bliss chooses for himself as long as Finn is paying. He minds the crack with his thumb. Bliss is a poor drinker and he knows it. Not mean like Finn, but morose and persistent and beyond satisfying. “A little of your fatback would’ve gone good with them beans.”
“You’ll like it well enough plain,” says Finn.
Bliss sniffs the air with satisfaction and mutters something unintelligible, pours himself another whiskey.
“You be sparing with that.” But Finn doesn’t mean it and he knows that Bliss will pay him no mind anyhow. Once you get Bliss started there’s no slowing him down until the jug is empty. “Besides, I ain’t paid for it yet.”
“Don’t worry none. I’ll put it on your account.” Tapping the side of his head with a finger.
They sit in silence while the meat cooks.
“I’ve broken it off with that woman,” says Finn.
“You’ve made such a claim before.”
“This time I mean it.”
“We’ll see.”
“I reckon we will.”
Bliss points his nose toward the spot where the meat sizzles on the fire just as surely as if he had two good eyes to guide it. “When’ll that be ready, you suppose? I don’t want it burnt.”
“Soon.” Tossing in another strip or two.
“Ain’t no good to me burnt.”
“Hold your water.”
“I’m just saying. Yours must be about black by now. The one you put up while I was in them woods.”
“I ain’t having any. She’s all yours, on account of how good you’ve always been to me.”
“Aww. Tain’t nothing.”
“A token of my gratitude.”
Bliss smiles in the odd unself-conscious way of one who has never looked into a mirror and learned thus to confine his expressions to the social norm. “So how long was you with her, Finn?”
“Ten, twelve years maybe. Fifteen, off and on.”
“Offer and onner, like they say.” He puts down his empty jar and rubs his hands together in a fit of glee, his whole brain a lovely jumble of women and fatback bacon. “What’ll the Judge think?”
“Can’t say.” Stabbing the flesh with a sharp stick and flipping it over.
“You’ve steered him wrong before.”
“I know it.”
“Me, I don’t believe you’ll ever make a dent in that Judge. He knows what he knows.”
Finn grunts.
“Your daddy’s one judge that’s got his mind made up.”
“He’s been that way all my life.”
“He was that way before you was born, Finn. It ain’t none of your doing.” He hawks and spits into the fire, and Finn throws in some more pieces. “Sure it ain’t done yet?”
“Just about. Have some more whiskey.”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
After a while Finn stabs the meat and places it upon a flat stone that he bumps against the bootlegger’s knee a time or two. “Can you set down that whiskey long enough to eat?”
“I’ll do my best,” says Bliss. Which he manages, just barely. And until half past midnight, while the silence in the woods deepens and the white moon looms and recedes and the owls grow weary at last of pursuing their prey through black air, the fire consumes Finn’s secret. Come noon Bliss will awaken on the hard ground, and in his mind Finn’s presence will have taken on the quality of a ghostly visitation.
He is between worlds, this boy. Between the river and the town, between the hogshead and the house, between the taint of his mother and the stain of his pap. He knows some things that he can never say, not even to himself.
He has trained his companions well—these boys forbidden to associate with him on account of his mother’s suspected stigma and his father’s famed trouble with whiskey, these boys who associate with him nonetheless and perhaps all the more intently for being forbidden his company although they do not generally encounter him at school or at church or at any of the other places ordinarily deemed suitable for boys of the village. They find his dark history as dizzying as a leap from some great bluff into a Mississippi pool and his scrapes with his violent pap as thrilling as a narrow escape from Injun Joe’s cave and his deep broad knowledge of woodsman’s lore and slave’s superstition as enchanting as a spell of protection against nightwalking spirits or werewolves, these boys forbidden to play with him yet drawn into his wake like needles to a lodestone, these boys whom he has trained well enough that at least one of them knows what he’ll say before he says it and indeed has said it already, that the body is not a man’s at all on account of it floats faceup.
When he can extricate himself from the widow’s he sleeps in a great barrel nearly as tall as a man and twice as big around, a sugar hogshead washed up among the rushes at the edge of the village. The barrel lies upon its side and he lies upon his side within it. Sometimes he locates a place between the staves where the rain and the riverwater and the barrel’s former purpose have conspired to leave behind a concealed crusty ridge of old sugar solidified, and with his clasp-knife he pries it loose for the pleasure of sucking upon it while he drifts off to sleep.
In the end it falls to the undertaker to load the corpse upon a wagon and remove it from the indignity of public display. Except perhaps for O’Toole, the giant who owns the slaughterhouse in the next county, there is none other who might possess the stomach for it. So here he is, rolling the sticky fly-blown thing into a square of old canvas and wrangling it up onto the bed of his wagon as if it were the featureless corpse of a slug and he an ant, strong beyond his size. His name is Swope, he is rail-thin and dressed in rusty black, and he has been a fixture in the village of St. Petersburg for longer than anyone can remember. From long association he has acquired both the air of death and some of its permanence, and his pale hair bursts from under the brim of his slouch hat like a pile of sunbleached straw.
The corpse for its part is well mannered, patient, and perfectly amenable. Leached clean of all fluids, it barely stains the canvas tarpaulin.
Swope mutters to himself as he works, complaining about the hour and the uncharacteristic heat and the unfairness of the world. He has long made a habit of talking to himself, since no one else will do it. The children believe that he speaks to Death, which hovers invisibly over one of his shoulders or the other, although their parents believe instead that he addresses his harmless old horse, Alma.
“As if I weren’t busy enough without goddamn half-pay charity cases come floating downstream. Won’t barely cover my expenses, may God damn the goodness of my goddamn bleeding heart, but who in hell else is going to do it? And at this time of the morning, as if the old gal couldn’t have kept till noon. A feller gets himself the idea to go skin somebody like a goddamn rabbit at least he ought to have the decency to set something by for the proper obsequies, mail it anonymous to the paper or the marshal or some such. A goddamn crime is what it is. The feller what done it deserves to be tried as much for one as for the other. Pitiful goddamn half-pay charity case.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Finn 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
TiBookChatter More than 1 year ago
About this time last year, I was looking for titles to pitch to my book club and came across Finn. I can't remember where I saw it, but it was a staff pick at one of the indie stores. The staffer had a lot of good things to say about it, but I was skeptical. I was intrigued by the premise, but doubtful. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a timeless classic so I wasn't interested in reading anything that would taint my memory of it. However, if the author chose to build upon it.well, that I could see. That's exactly what Jon Clinch does. Here's a passage from The Adventure's of Huckleberry Finn as said, by Jim: It's a dead man. Yes, indeedy; naked too. He's ben shot in de back. I reck'n he's ben dead two er three days. Come in, Huck but doan' look at his face-it's too gashly. The actual passage is quite a bit longer, but Clinch takes that passage and fills in the details to create Finn, which in and of itself, is its own story. Admittedly, the first half of the book is a bit monotonous. Finn is a simple man on the surface. He spends most of his day fishing, only to trade his catch for whiskey later. The daily routine of a drunkard can be a tad repetitive but in sharing this with us, Clinch gives us a feel for who Finn is. In between these drunken episodes, there are moments of clarity. Moments where Finn shows compassion, or pity.or even intelligence but there are also moments of pure hatred and viciousness. His behavior is almost animal-like in nature, and he is brutal at times. As for his relationship with son, Huck.there is love there, but there is also a "what can he do for me?" attitude which is brought to our attention early on. Finn's strength is the ability to immediately assess a situation, to determine what's in it for him. This rings true for his interactions with several of other characters as well, and there are many wonderful characters in this novel. Finn takes from each of them, what he needs at that exact moment. Although Clinch remains true to the classic, he does take some liberties with Huck as we know him. I wasn't sure how I felt about them, but by the end of the story, it all felt right to me. As far as the actual writing, the story is told out-of-order, and as the story progresses, the pace quickens and each chapter becomes shorter in length. This format was incredibly effective and had me eagerly turning each page to see how the story ended. As the days pass, I find myself thinking about the complexity of such a story and how Clinch managed to pull it off.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Clinch is an English Teacher's dream student. I have not read a book this enjoyable in years. His descriptions of the Mississippi and its environs are so descriptive. You can smell the fish. The characters are so easy to imagine in the minds eye. The reader has no idea where the story is going. Great read!
Linda84 More than 1 year ago
I found this book at the Goodwill store and didn't start reading it for awhile. Once I picked it up I totally enjoyed it and found it hard to put down.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MarktwainCT More than 1 year ago
John Clinch did a great job with this book.I found it written in the Mark Twain fashion I'm used to.It will compliment my Mark Twain collection very nicely
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Ever wonder what might have happened that cause Huck Finn's pap death, from the novel by Mark Twain? Now your wait is over. In this amazing tale by Jon Clinch named Finn. The main character being Huck's dad Finn. Throughout this novel Clinch is able to create Finn through his own point of view. Much like Huckleberry Finn Clinch writes about Finn's journey in life. Such as the struggle he went through, the adventures, problems with alcohol, and Finn's way of raising Huck. In Finn's adventures he faces much trouble with the law and much more. He also has many problems with his dad and "wife" with having disagreements. Finally, the death of Finn was very unexpected but expected at the same time. Who was his mystery murder? Reading Finn by Jon Clinch will astonish you, and will get very interesting. Clinch sets the novel in the 1800 when slaves and black were inferior to whites. A very interesting time period that Clinch's chooses, because it helps add more drama and suspense to the reading Clinch accomplishes all this by his descriptive words and images that make you feel like you were really there. Which increases theme of death and abusive relationship. In the end Jon Clinch wrote a great novel to bring Finn's character come out. I recommend this novel to all.
lcutty More than 1 year ago
I loved this book, though it is often disturbing. Mr. Clinch does Mr. Twain justice, in recomposing a wonderful, classic tale. The characters are gritty, the landscape so real and the dialogue (or lack there of) is brilliant. This book is not for everyone, but I think the ravenous reader will really appreciate this work of art.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Just the writing itself is delicious, refreshingly literary. On top of that, the layers Clinch has added to Huck Finn's story are amazing, and he keeps it plausible, albeit challenging perhaps because of what we have been conditioned to think. Huck remains himself and is explained-not directly, but through circumstances. Pap himself is very complex, I found myself rooting for him to keep it together at times. Excellent, believable characters, mood, description, reactions of characters to events, yet much of the power of this book lies it what is left unsaid. A book for real readers. Might have blown Mark Twain's socks off. Must, must read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
In a time when we are surrounded by shallow thinking and weak ideas from the leaders of our country to the people that control the entertainment industry, whose big ideas come from cartoons and comic books, this skillfully written debut novel from Jon Clinch seems to have slipped through the static and will surely rise to the top. FINN is a masterfully written, in-depth study of the complexity of the human condition. Clinch ingeniously uses the clues from TwainÕs masterpiece to flesh out the dark, brutal tale of Pap Finn. Clinch stands on the shoulders of Mark Twain and reaches lofty heights. Twain would have been proud.
Guest More than 1 year ago
...the author is implying that Huckleberry Finn was a mulatto. That may rattle some Twain purists, but it sure would explain Huck's tolerance that was unheard of in that era. I could understand the readers confusion because you have to be paying attention with this novel. The timelines jump around in a Tarantino- like manner and I'm still debating whether that enhances or detracts from the story. Also the dialogue could be vague as most characters conversed at length in muted one or two word phrases. This trend occured whether the speaker was an uneducated rube like the title character, or the local magistrate. Perhaps that was also part of the authors intent as I feel that one of the underlying themes of this book was that evil is not necessarily limited to Finn himself. All in all I'm glad I read this book. It's quite a page turner and I finished it quickly.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Clinch takes us back to the Mississippi and the days of Huck Finn - and before. I feel myself there - with the thick Mississippi mud hanging heavy at my feet - experincing it all. Of all things - we learn about his family. Dark - Original - I found myself wanting more. Let's hope Clinch doesn't stop here. Very well done.