I'll admit it. I've always been pretty much an elitist when it comes to the topic of literature. I was, you see, AN ENGLISH MAJOR. Not exactly a rare breed, but an elite one that's very proud of itself, thanks very much.
I received my B.A. in English literature from a very small, private, liberal arts school in suburban Chicago, and at the time I thought I was clearly answering just about the highest calling a book lover can. What I came to find out later, painfully so, was the rest of the world couldn't really have cared much less about how passionate I was about my area of study. Ultimately, I had a really expensive piece of paper to hang on my wall, and no viable opportunity for employment. But what I did have was my thoroughly snobbish stance on WHAT IS GREAT LITERATURE. On that I was unshakeable.
For most of my life I thought it heresy to mess with the greatness that is the western canon. Works like Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea were always a huge thorn in my side. They were supremely irritating to me, in that self-righteous way things that are lowly irritate the ENGLISH MAJOR. How dare you mess with Jane Eyre, you upstart! Go write your own stuff, woman! Leave the Brontes alone. If Charlotte had wanted us to know Bertha's story she'd have written it in! Period. Now, leave off.
Blah, blah, blah. I dusted off the frame of my diploma with my tear-stained sleeve, weeping all over again at the injustice of it all.
Then came Michael Cunningham, whose The Hours made a foray into the world of Virginia Woolf that had steam coming out my ears. MY Virginia! I read the book once and thought "yeah, okay, interesting enough but it's a pale shadow." I read it again, and thought, "wow, I think I missed something the first time through, this is really timely and provocative." I read it a third time, and, finally, thought THIS IS BRILLIANT AND A GREAT HOMAGE."
When Random House sent me a copy of Finn to review I was intrigued. I respect Mark Twain's place in the American canon because he's, well, Mark Twain. He's iconic. He was uproariously funny, to put it very mildly, but he was also brilliantly socially aware, something that got him into a lot of hot water during his lifetime and still keeps him on the banned lists today. I knew all about Twain, but Jon Clinch I didn't know. He was new, and untested. This was his FIRST BOOK! He was no Mark Twain. I raised an eyebrow (the left, if you're wondering), skeptically.
Surprisingly, I found the premise of the book grabbed me immediately. The shadowy figure of Huckleberry Finn's father, the floating house, the body.... It had been so long since I'd read the book I'd forgotten all about those details. As lover of darkly written gothic writing, though, that was enough to sway me. I opted to read the book.
By the end of the first chapter I knew it. This was THE REAL THING. This wasn't the pale shadow, this was the strutting, self-assured player. Finn was, simply, a damn fine examination of what lay beneath the cryptic, incomplete portrait of what Mark Twain must have had in mind for Huck's father. This was the whole story, laid out for us, filled in with detail Twain probably didn't have in mind, but fulfilling the spirit of his inspiration. It was, essentially, the sort of dark masterpiece it should have been, to dare take on the task of fleshing out one of Mark Twain's characters.
Finn takes this one tiny sliver of information from Huckleberry Finn and expands it out to a tale about one of the most soulless characters in American literature. It tells the story of a man so without human morality, and so animalistic in nature, it's almost impossible to believe he could be real. Almost. The depth of the depravity in the book is nothing short of startling, but also nothing short of genius. That it's violent, and at times depicts the most vile side of humanity, is true, but it does so in one of the most well-conceived, most tightly-woven books I've read in a long time.
Finn could stand on its own, even if there had never been a Huckleberry Finn. It's that well-written and beautifully executed. But the fact it does base itself on the iconic classic, and does it so well, gives it a new facet altogether. The book should be studied alongside Twain's book in the university classroom. It should be studied in writing classes, as well. This is what we need more of in contemporary American writing. It's a substantial, brilliantly executed book that's both pain and pleasure within the same cover. As difficult to read as it is, due to its often unflinching brutality, its poetic beauty of style and form make it about as compelling as fiction gets.
Finn is one of the best contemporary books I've read in a very long time. It restored a lot of my faith in modern writing at a time when that was flagging. I look forward to what comes from Jon Clinch next. Whatever that is, I have no doubt it will be brilliant.