Monday, April 02, 2007

Third Day Book Report: "Finn" by Jon Clinch

I read Huckleberry Finn many years ago, and although I am a Mark Twain fan and have intended to re-read it, there are so many good books I haven't read even once that I have never gotten around to it again. This month's Third Day Book Club book is Finn by Jon Clinch. This book is based on some of the characters of Huckleberry Finn, notably Huck's father, "Pap," who is called "Finn" in Clinch's tale. I had hoped to go back and read Twain's book before posting this review, but here it is, the 3rd day of April, so I'll just have to wing it.

I'm not sure what I think about the technique of writing a novel that is based on the characters of a different book by a different author. I don't think I like it, although in the right circumstances, I might. Many years ago, I read The Seven Percent Solution by Nicholas Meyer, a ripoff of the Sherlock Holmes classics and didn't like it. More recently, Scarlett: The Sequel to Gone With the Wind got some notoriety, and as I remember was panned by the critics and the public.

Twain is such a master story teller, than an author has to have considerable audacity to set himself up for comparison by playing around with his characters. Clinch is a good writer, apparently many critics consider him a master story teller up to the task, but I didn't like his effort.

The book starts with the discovery of a body floating down the Mississippi, and repeats Huck's folk wisdom from Huckleberry Finn that there is a difference in how dead male and female bodies float; one floats face side up and the other face side down. The body is fished out and turns out to be that of a badly decomposed woman, and, we eventually figure out, Huck's mother.

But that is only the beginning of the horrors. We soon find out that Pap, or Finn, as he is referred to in this book, has skinned the body and taken some of the skin to his blind bootlegger friend to be fried and eaten. Mark Twain was criticized in the 19th century for being indelicate, but to introduce his characters to cannibalism goes beyond indelicacy, even in the 21st century.

Some critics compare Finn to Cormac McCarthy's work, and although I haven't read a lot of McCarthy, I have read enough to know that it is too bloody violent for my tastes, as is Finn.

All of Clinch's characters speak in short, clipped sentences. Apparently, that's how Midwesterners talk, and they all say, "I know it," with alarming propensity. I could understand one character having a verbal tic, but everyone saying "I know it?" Clinch defends the use of the phrase, which occurs hundreds of time in the book, in an interview as helping advance the novel's "mythic scope." In the same interview he mentions Melville and Faulkner as sources of inspiration for his book.

I never studied English literature, and although I think I know the meaning of "mythic," I would need to go back to college to learn how having everyone say "I know it," advances mythic scope. I just know what I like, and although the author clearly knows how to write, I don't like his writing. I gave the book two stars.


fez said...

Good "bad" review. If Clinch is such a good writer, why doesn't he create characters of his own, rather than ripping off Twain? What's he going to attempt next--the further adventures of Tom Joad in a sequel to "The Grapes of Wrath"?

Patry Francis said...

Dare I admit it--the "founder" of the Third Day Book Club, and the one who chose this unloved book, didn't read it! I read the first 30 pages on the road, but it's not what you call an airplane book.

Strangely enough, Jon Clinch was touring the West coast at the same time I was, and two of the stores where I read had him scheduled for the same week. With all the acclaim he's getting, I suspect he had much larger crowds.

Once I got home, I never seemed to find the time to get back into the book.

In any case, I tend to agree with you about appropriating characters from the classics. While it almost seems to guarantee lots of buzz for the book, I don't much like the idea either.

So it's Changing Light for next month, and this time I absolutely promise to do my part.

Thanks for a great review and for keeping the book club alive.

Amishlaw said...

Good point, Fez. Someone has probably tried it.

Patry, I can understand why you might not have gotten around to finishing "Finn," with all you've had on your plate (to coin a phrase for an ex-waitress.) I've ordered next month's book and am looking forward to it.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, this whole business really sucks. Remember how last year Geraldine Brooks won a Pulitzer for MARCH, which was based on the father in LITTLE WOMEN? Why couldn't she come up with her own ideas? Why did the Pulitzer committee reward her? Why do the critics love FINN?

Amishlaw said...

Anonymous, I didn't read "March," so I can't comment on whether she deserved the Pulitizer. The fact that critics have endorsed one author stealing the characters from another author,or that the critics love "Finn" doesn't really influence me one way or the other. Luckily, heretics aren't burned at the stake any more.

tarakuanyin said...

I'm reading it and am almost done, but I just haven't had a lot of time lately, and I had to admit I'm really not liking it much. I don't like his style, for reasons I'll explain if I ever get around to posting an entry on it, and like you I'm turned off by the brutality. Cannibilism? Ugh.

I wonder if you're the only person who posted on the right day about it?

Pistol Pete said...

Interesting that Finn was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association, and its author, John Clinch, has joined in today's blog-for-patry-francis movement.

Amishlaw said...

I wonder if Patry ever got around to reading Clinch's book.