Revisiting and reinventing the classics is always a tricky maneuver. Sometimes the results are a fabulous success, like Wicked, Gregory Maguire's smash-hit riff on L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. However, Jon Clinch's first novel is perhaps even more daring than Maguire's bestseller, as it uses the beloved tale of Huckleberry Finn as its inspiration and hones in on its darkest character. The resulting novel is gruesome and penetrating in ways that Mark Twain surely hadn't imagined. Former American literature teacher Clinch turns in a provocative, compelling, and thoroughly original debut with Finn, the back-story of a villain that makes the Wicked Witch of the West look like Mary Poppins: Huckleberry Finn's father.
While the character of Finn, Huck's dad, was a relatively minor one in Twain's classic original, Clinch uses this dark figure as a springboard to address a number of complex themes, including race, slavery, and the often difficult relationships that exist between fathers and sons. In Finn, readers learn the full history of the most thoroughly evil character in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Clinch frames his novel with the decidedly macabre image of a flayed corpse, chronologically ping-ponging throughout to create a Byzantine plot structure owing much to Faulkner, one of Clinch's admitted literary heroes. Throughout Finn, we learn of Finn's father, known only as "the Judge", a man so utterly racist that he pays double for white slaves so that he does not even have to associate with blacks on a slave-master basis. We learn of Finn's relationship with his slaves, his ingrained racism fueled by his desire for black women. We also learn that such a relationship resulted in the birth of Huck.
An undertaking as audacious and icon-shattering as Finn was not without its detractors. Clinch says that some rather prominent authors tried to dissuade him from writing the novel, saying that it would be impossible to skirt the heavily cast shadow of Twain. However, the author was determined to tackle the weighty project that was inspired by a disturbing image that had stuck in Clinch's mind for a long, long time. "Ever since I first read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I've been haunted by the image of that dead man in that floating house," he revealed in an interview on his website. "It was just too creepy. And upon rereading the book more recently it seemed to me that the scene's place in the novel (just where Huck and Jim's story starts taking off) conspires with its anonymity (the corpse isn't identified as Finn's until the end of the book) to keep readers from giving it too much attention."
While some might find the very idea of Finn to be bordering on blasphemous, Clinch remained greatly revert toward Twain while composing the book. "My intent was always to honor the imaginative world that Twain created in Huck Finn rather than enslave myself to the details of geography or history. Some scenes from Huck replay whole in Finn, except for point of view and subtext. Some scenes that Twain only sketched or suggested -- Finn and the professor from Ohio, Finn and Judge Stone -- are fleshed out fully. Other scenes that my narrative required -- Finn's discovery of Huck's escape from the squatter's shack, for example -- called for interpreting the events of Huck in new ways."
The resulting novel had been creating quite a buzz in the publishing industry for some time, and now with its publication, it is beginning to receive flattering notices, Publishers Weekly proclaiming it a "darkly luminous debut" and Kirkus Reviews concurring that it is "a memorable debut, likely to make waves." No doubt such statements affirm Clinch's daring decision to take a chance on re-interpreting one of the most important and beloved novels in American literature.
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While Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is obviously the chief inspiration for Clinch's Finn, he says he was also influenced by novels like Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, which all re-imagine the stories of characters from classic literature (Beowulf, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, respectively).
Another inspiration for Finn was Shelley Fisher Fishkin's fascinating, controversial analysis Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices. Although Clinch admits that he did not actually read Fishkin's book, he says that he knew of it as a respected piece of literary analysis and was intrigued by the idea that Huckleberry Finn may have been of mixed-race.
Jon Clinch is not only an attention-grabbing first novelist, but he is also an experienced ad-man who ran his own advertising agency in a suburb outside of Philadelphia.
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Clinch:
"Fresh out of college I became a high school teacher. I taught Advanced Composition and American Literature for three years. I won the Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year award within a week of fending off an attempt by my superintendent to fire me for being too demanding of students -- at which point I realized that teaching was perhaps not for me."
"The inspiration for Finn came directly from my first, youthful reading of Twain's book, particularly the house that Huck and Jim found afloat on the Mississippi, bearing a corpse whose identity would remain a mystery until the end of the novel. When I returned to that scene as an adult, it seemed to have grown even creepier and more evocative than I'd remembered. The walls, covered all over with words and pictures in charcoal. The men's and women's clothing. The wooden leg. The two black masks made of cloth. I asked myself what on earth Twain meant to suggest by all this, and in writing Finn I sought the answers."
"I put myself through college playing the guitar and singing, and later on I fronted a little band. I always figured that one day I'd be famous as one of those sensitive singer-songwriter types, but things didn't work out that way."
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In the winter of 2007, Jon Clinch took some time out to talk with us about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
This is an easy one: John Gardner's Grendel.
I've always been a huge admirer of Gardner. He possessed enormous range, vast learning, a learned and flexible voice, and an admirable readiness to take on big subjects. (He also had the courage to challenge the dominant literary thinking of his day, via his remarkable On Moral Fiction. But that's a story for another time.)
In Grendel, he retold Beowulf from the monster's point of view. And a sophisticated, woeful, existentialist monster he was. In many ways Grendel is an example of one of Gardner's favorite novelistic constructs: an extended argument between two conflicting world views. That sounds dull and contrived, but in his hands it's anything but. Because in the service of his philosophical and narrative ends, Gardner brings Grendel and the imperiled Thanes back to vivid and unforgettable life. No wonder that among his many fine novels, Grendel is the one you're most likely to find in a bookstore today.
It occurs to me now that even the title of my book -- Finn -- may be an unconscious tribute to the simplicity with which Gardner named his.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I've noticed that my favorites fall into three categories, each of which represents something I admire in literature.
I love Island, by Alistair MacLeod, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder, for their great emotional purity. I don't normally read in search of an emotional response, but these two brought me to honestly earned tears-- and I admire their authors to no end for it. I read the first story in Island, "The Boat," on the treadmill at the gym, and by the time I finished I was practically weeping into my towel. I collected myself and went off to find my wife, who'd read the book a few weeks before, and told her that having witnessed this stunning performance from MacLeod I didn't know how I would ever dare to write another word. The same goes for The Bridge. Watching Wilder's Marquesa de Montmayor write those letters to her long-lost daughter just about broke my heart.
The next batch of books is a more technical grouping: Novels with unreliable first-person narrators. The greatest of them all, for me at least, is Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. It's been fun, by the way, to track my response to this book over the years. My first few times through it, I was thrilled by Nabokov's erudition and poetic language. Once I had a daughter of my own, I began to recoil from Humbert Humbert's predations on a more visceral level. And then, maybe four or five years ago, I listened to Jeremy Irons' fabulously creepy reading and just wanted to go boil my ears.
Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast is another fine example of a tragic story told by a narrator we can't trust -- in this case, a teenaged boy whose raving mad father has thrust his entire family into the direst sort of danger. Young Charlie Fox can't quite bring himself to tell us what a monster his father is, but the facts of the narrative are plain enough without his direct comment -- and it's thrilling to watch it all unfold. (There may be, now that I think of it, a touch of Charlie and his father in the father-son relationships that form the core of my own book.)
But novels with unreliable narrators don't have to be voyages into despair. Consider two of the funniest and most instantly engaging books I can think of: Mark Helprin's Memoir from Antproof Case and Arthur Phillips' The Egyptologist. The nameless narrator of Antproof -- "Call me Oscar Progresso," he begins, parodying Melville and declaring right off the mystery of his identity -- spins yarn after yarn about something that he claims to be life, spanning most of the twentieth century and combining romance and adventure with high comedy.
And speaking of comedy, Ralph Trilipush, the utterly deranged, eponymous narrator of Phillips' novel, takes us on a journey down the most hysterically convoluted rabbit hole of a story that you can imagine. He's pretty sure he's excavating an important archaeological find, and we're pretty sure it's going to end badly. The Egyptologist is an exercise in "how far does the author dare to take this?" and Phillips dares to takes it all the way.
The last group -- if it's a group at all, for these are books that aren't exactly at ease in company -- can be defined by one sentence from Moby-Dick: "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme." And these are mighty books indeed, each a world unto itself, each yielding up different treasures on every reading.
Absalom, Absalom! is my favorite William Faulkner. In the author's hypnotic prose -- and in multiple story lines that do make certain demands upon the reader -- it charts the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, who arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi with a team of slaves and a vision for building a manor house and founding a dynasty. Sutpen's secretive power and iron will, along with the racial stain that his story traces from generation to generation, were large in my mind during the writing of Finn.
Cormac McCarthy is also an admirer of Faulkner, and his Blood Meridian is a novel both gorgeous and harrowing. The story of a gang of killers hired to collect Indian scalps along the Texas-Mexico border, it's as dark and intense a piece of writing as you're likely to encounter. There is about it a Biblical quality, a sense of the presence of powers either unknowably just or completely nihilistic, and a scope that's truly epic.
In its epic nature, in fact, I'd suggest that Blood Meridian belongs alongside very few other American novels, among them Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Read it once, read it twice, read it once more -- Moby-Dick will show you another face every time. It's an adventure on the high seas. A rumination on the nature of man. An encyclopedia of whales and whaling. An exploration of madness and obsession. And more. Lots, lots more.
In Wise Blood, Flannery O'Connor works through a compelling instance of her great theme: the presence of grace in the world. A deeply committed Roman Catholic and a southerner through and through -- her grotesques are some of the most memorable characters in our literature -- O'Connor pursued her narrative aims without the slightest hint of fear or restraint. And in Wise Blood, where the self-proclaimed prophet Hazel Motes founds the ill-fated Church Without Christ, they take us on a wild ride indeed.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
My taste in films is entirely at odds with my taste in books. I don't want to think at the movies. I just want to be entertained.
Tops on my list: The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. It's a black-and-white parody of the sci-fi B-movies of my childhood, complete with aliens, mad scientists, a murderous mutant, a seductive woman-beast named Animala, and the walking, talking, hilariously cantankerous Lost Skeleton himself. Shot in something like a month on a budget somewhere in the middle five figures, with props straight from eBay, it's an absolute classic.
A close second: The In-Laws. I'm talking about the 1979 original, with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. With the funniest script ever written and a tortuously convoluted plot, it's a movie that creates obsessive fans left and right. I know people who can recite its script from beginning to end. "Serpentine, Shelly!"
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Most of the music I love best is a little too intrusive have on while I'm working--either because it's too noisy or because it's too much about lyrics.
On the noisy side: Tom Waits. Everything he's ever done, from Closing Time to Rain Dogs to his latest, the masterful three-disc Orphans. Whether he's playing the calliope or spitting out hipster verse or banging on a brake drum and hollering, his work has a kind of vast self-generative intensity that hooks me right down to the ground. And he's one of our great poets, too.
Speaking of poets, I've admired Randy Newman and Guy Clark for years and years. Newman for the sophistication and humor of his unlikable, egocentric first-person narrators, Clark for the deceptive ease with which he combines a masculine point of view with heartfelt sentiment. He's always emotional without ever dipping into sentimentality, which I believe is a huge achievement.
Last, but very far from least -- I own something like thirty of his albums -- is the late and very great John Hartford. A fine and inventive songwriter, a master of the five-string banjo and fiddle, an encyclopedia of American music, Hartford was a national treasure.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I think we'd be reading a minor classic that I rediscovered a few years back, The Big Sky, by A. B. Guthrie. It uses very simple materials -- the story of a mountain man and his way of life -- to address really big philosophical issues. And it has a great sense of place, too.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to pay attention to the things that other people enjoy reading, and then to give them something that either fits their tastes as perfectly as I can manage or else stretches their boundaries just a little bit.
I'm happiest buying books for my wife and daughter, as I can be pretty certain I'll never miss.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Coffee. Starbucks coffee. And when that's gone, more coffee. Generally Starbucks.
Seriously, though, the lifetime that I spent writing advertising caused me to develop some very businesslike habits about writing. I sit down and get it done.
What are you working on now?
A revenge tragedy about fathers and sons.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I wrote for ten years, finishing five novels, before Finn took me by the throat and changed everything. Those ten years were great practice, even if those five novels will never see the light of day. And the mere passage of time helped, too. I truly believe that I could not have written Finn as a younger and less experienced person. Finn and I are about the same age, and even though that's practically all we have in common, it's enough.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Read great books. Without them, you have no models.
Write every day. If you can't bring yourself to do that much, you may not be cut out for the job.
Write something you believe in. You don't have to write what you know, and you don't have to write what somebody else thinks is good. But write something that you believe with all your heart is important.
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