Early in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” when Tom Sawyer and his friends are devising rules for their band of robbers, they run into a problem: “Here’s Huck Finn,” one of the boys asks, “what you going to do ’bout him?”
Indeed, what are we going to do ’bout Huck Finn? More than 130 years after the publication of Mark Twain’s masterpiece — a novel that Hemingway called the beginning of “all modern American literature” — we still don’t know. Poor Huck just wanted to be left alone, but nothing the Widow Douglas or his abusive father inflicted on him could match the punishments brought down on Huck’s story, which has been sanitized, “sivilized,” Disneyfied and, of course, banned in school districts across the country.
Even Twain couldn’t leave the river kid well-enough alone. He sketched a sequel in 1885 that had Huck heading out West with Tom and Jim to live with Indians. That manuscript remained unfinished, but other writers have shown more initiative — or less restraint — sometimes with surprisingly fine results. Among the contenders, John Seelye published “The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1970), and Greg Matthews offered “The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1988). Nancy Rawles told the story of Sadie, Jim’s enslaved wife, in “My Jim” (2005), and Jon Clinch reconstructed the life of Huck’s Pap in “Finn” (2007).
And now comes “Huck Out West,” by Robert Coover, the literary cult figure who’s been transforming American myth and history for 50 years. Twain’s characters are back, alive again: Huck, Tom, Becky and Jim, along with references to Pap and the Widow and the Judge.
Is this resurrection something to celebrate, like the boys showing up at their own funeral? You may be tempted to sigh, “I been there before,” but you ain’t been here before, not like this anyways. Coover’s novel picks up the story decades later, in the 1870s, around the Black Hills of South Dakota during the gold rush. Huck is a man now, bearded, still living alone and still sounding remarkably like the boy we met in school:
“If I’d knowed we’d be a-finding gold, I’d a stayed down in the teepee,” he begins, “because there ain’t much worse can happen to a body than getting rich. All gold is fool’s gold, and I warn’t in that neighborhood on its account. Drawed out by Tom Sawyer’s stories and still here long after he’d upped and gone, I’d spent nigh half my life in the Territories, working one job or t’other. I was sometimes homesick for the Big River, but I mostly got used to the Territories and they got used to me, neither of us giving nor asking much, a way of easing through time that suited me when the world ’lowed it.”
Coover sustains that magical act of literary ventriloquism for 300 pages, preserving Twain’s raggedly, tall-tale patter spiced with the same accidental aphorisms. But Coover’s feat of transformation is ultimately more interesting than his imitation. Rafting down the Mississippi, Twain captured pre-Civil War America with a picaresque tale of marks and swindlers, innocents and thugs. In the end, he allowed us to fantasize that Huck might find some respite from the raspy constraints of society by lighting out for the Territory.
Coover, though, re-creates a strikingly different era: the nation’s first centennial when the country is swelling with gold, immigrants and dreams of finally eradicating its native population. This is an empire no longer expanding or fracturing but greedily staking its claims on every last acre. Huck has ridden for the Pony Express — the Wild West Web of its day — and he’s lived happily with Lakota Indians, but now there’s nowhere left for him to light out for, nowhere left to practice the natural morality that is his blessing and his curse. “It was almost,” Huck says, “like there was something wicked about growing up.”
As a result, despite a rich vein of slapstick humor, “Huck Out West” is a more melancholy novel than Twain’s original. “All stories is sad stories,” Huck says, and we come to see that his “desperate low-spiritedness” stems from the trauma of witnessing so much of the human slaughter that federal expansion demanded.
That darkness accrues slowly at first, though. Huck has settled in a place called the Gulch. It was, he tells us, “mighty peaceful and about as close as one could get in this world to the Widow Douglas’s fancied Providence.” But the discovery of gold has ruined that tranquility, drawing in hordes of prospectors and thieves. “Soon there’d be more people shooting at each other,” Huck predicts, correctly, “and then laws and lawmen getting mixed up in it.” He’s already earned the ire of the genocidal “Gen. Hard Ass” for slipping away from his regiment rather than participate in any more atrocities. (It’s a comfort to know what fate awaits Gen. Hard Ass, a.k.a. George Custer.)
Even out West, Huck’s greatest challenge is still his best friend, Tom Sawyer. The imaginative, quick-talking boy who charmed women and dazzled other kids with tales of pirates has grown up to become a maniacal politician. (Like another crowd-pleasing narcissist of more recent vintage, he also rails against Mexicans and brags about abusing women.) Coover hasn’t altered the direction of Tom’s character so much as followed its trajectory straight to hell. Tom is the hypnotic mythmaker, the egomaniac gilded with shiny humility. Riding into the Gulch at just the right moment — accompanied by his personal photographer — he’s a white-hatted, smooth-talking lawyer who molds the truth and public opinion as though it were mud from the creek. He would be merely ridiculous, except that now the boy who once rhapsodized about killing his rivals is a man who can actually do it — quickly, gleefully and frequently.
If the story meanders as much as the Mississippi River, it also gathers considerable force as Huck struggles to stay out of trouble, avoid Gen. Hard Ass and resist Tom’s increasingly malevolent friendship. As this symphony of echoes reaches its conclusion, readers may hear the grisly battle from “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
Among the many elements that Coover imitates so well is Twain’s misanthropy, his macabre sense of humor and his perpetually offended innocence. “That was a sad thing,” Huck says, “to think that even Tom Sawyer was a-growing old.” Indeed, everybody seems to be growing old except Huck, who remains a voice of perplexed kindness, and Coover, who, at 84, is still a miraculously sharp writer.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles.
By Robert Coover
W.W. Norton. 320 pp. $26.95