The Sins of the Father

(David A. Johnson - David A. Johnson)
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, February 18, 2007


By Jon Clinch

Random House

287 pp. $23.95

Early in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the boys in Tom Sawyer's gang pledge to kill the families of any member who reveals their secrets. But one of them objects that Huck "hain't got no family."

"Well, hain't he got a father?" asks Tom Sawyer.

"Yes, he's a got a father, but you can't never find him."

Until now.

Jon Clinch's haunting first novel not only finds Pap, but in the life of this violent alcoholic it finds the spirit of a nation torn apart by conflicting racial passions. Clinch, who runs an advertising agency in Philadelphia, relies on Twain's details, sometimes borrowing whole scenes and patches of dialogue, but he reorders the characters completely, setting that eager little boy and his unconscious irony far into the background and forcing us to concentrate instead on the anguished man who sired him. 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 novel begins, as such a story must, on the Mississippi River, that incalculably powerful current that's both cradle and grave, giving life across 2,000 miles while carrying away the nation's detritus and death: "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." A series of horrors glide into this story just like that: slowly, often beautifully, letting us catch the scent of evil before we suddenly see it. This body in the opening paragraph continues its graceful passage down the river on a glorious morning, until it's spotted by boys "inured to dead things." It's a woman, but she won't be identified. Before tossing her in the river, Huck Finn's father carefully cut away all her skin.

Skin is an obsession with Finn, as it is for the rest of his country, and the tragedy of how he came to love and murder Huck's black mother is the spellbinding story that unravels in this novel.

Yes, Huck is half black -- a daring invention, to be sure, but also a brilliant embodiment of the liminal spot in which he lives, that chaotic Missouri boundary between freedom and slavery. Twain never suggested that Huck is a mulatto, but Finn cleverly explains the mystery of Huck's mother in perfect harmony with Twain's original. Clinch's real interest, though, is a deeply flawed, dangerous man who lurches for redemption between actions so vile he can't sleep.

From the opening discovery of the murdered woman, the story moves backward and forward in alternating chapters that reflect Finn's tangled relationship with the past. Night after night, deep in the woods, drinking with a blind moonshiner, Finn ruminates "upon the course of his life and the various hurtful influences upon it and how they have conspired to bring him to such a sad destination as this." Clinch never absolves him, but Finn comes from a family that would send anybody to the bottle. His mother is a bitter, dissatisfied woman. His father, known to everyone as the Judge, is an unyielding, loveless man who projects an enervating aura of disapproval. Disgusted with Finn's lack of interest in academics, the Judge consigns his son to a shack behind the barn, and there he might have spent the rest of his life, contentedly fishing and hunting and catching odd jobs, had he not come into possession of a young slave named Mary.

This impossibly complicated relationship is the heart of the novel and a testament to Clinch's sensitivity, his willingness to trace the threads of passion no matter where they lead. Naturally, Finn thinks of Mary as his property; he keeps her locked in his shack and orders her to cook and clean for him and eventually sleep with him. But he also appreciates her on a higher level that has no sanction in this racist society. Finn senses that "there is about her a grace and an ineffable sadness that conspire to retard her movements and make them thereby into something almost musical, transforming every act into a kind of prayer or languorous meditation." They fall into the habits of an old married couple. Despite "his shameful devotion," "his own untoward preferences in women," Finn eventually defends her with his life -- and even kills for her. "He is faithful to her," Clinch writes, "as to nothing else in this world," and she cares for him in return, without ever losing sight of the precarious nature of her position. When baby Huck comes along, the three of them, though desperately poor and completely outcast, seem genuinely content.

But try as he might, Finn is too weak, too proud and finally too racist to preserve what he later recalls as "the old paradisiacal days in his cabin." And that's the real curse that Clinch describes so powerfully: Finn is fully aware of what he's lost. "He is tormented to distraction by a kind of desperate unholy vigor," Clinch writes, "by the inescapable conviction that he has abandoned something that he must now restore unto himself." It's a poignant echo of Huck's description of his father in Huckleberry Finn: "A body would a thought he was Adam -- he was just all mud." And what, Clinch asks with unblinking honesty and sympathy, is an angry, remorseful man of mud to do with himself?

In one of the novel's most frightening, incantatory scenes, a grotesque allusion to Tom Sawyer, Finn madly whitewashes the entire interior of his shack -- the walls, the floor, the windows, everything -- desperate to be white, to be clean, to be pure, to cover the blood. But no sooner has it dried than he's drawing on those walls with the grime of his own fingers, creating a vast canvas "of his urge and of his longing and of his despair over the fate of his poor doomed immortal soul." Here, trapped in a squatter's shack hanging precariously over the river, is the madness of a whole country that will soon tear itself apart in a war over race.

Twain had a grim side, too, of course, but throughout much of his career, he was constrained by writing for the young boys' market. While working on Huckleberry Finn, he wrote in his journal, "I can't say, 'They cut his head off, or stabbed him, etc' describe the blood & the agony in his face." A decade later, already troubled by the depression that would eventually overtake him, he told a friend that he couldn't write all the things he wanted to: "They would require . . . a pen warmed up in hell." I don't know where Jon Clinch has been, but with Finn, he's grabbed hold of that searing pen. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company