Nowhere in the acknowledgments or praise for Finn that decorates the book will you find the name Cormac McCarthy. And that’s a little odd to me, because there’s little way to read Finn and not think of McCarthy, whose influence is evident from the first page and never vanishes throughout.
That’s not to say that Finn isn’t a solid enough book. Telling the story of Huckleberry Finn’s father, author Jon Clinch starts from the strange place where Huck finds his father’s body and works backwards, filling in the man’s life and using the strange objects that were present everywhere as representations of that life. Make no mistake, though: those objects take Clinch and the book into some dark, horrifying places, as Finn (the father, not the novel) reveals himself to be a far more depraved, abused, broken man than our brief glimpses might have revealed.
It’s in that aspect that McCarthy’s influence is most felt, as Clinch fleshes Finn out into something more human, a child warped by an unloving father and driven by impulses he doesn’t quite understand. Finn is drawn to African-American women, and loves them, despite (or maybe because of) the intense hatred and disapproval of his own father. And when his affair results in a mulatto child named Huckleberry, Finn finds himself torn between being true to himself and trying to appease the father that hates him.
It makes for generally compelling reading, even as we’re reading about a violent, drunken, broken man who’s often incapable of relating to people on anything approaching a normal level. And while Clinch’s book goes to some grim places – including murder, a sickening method of corpse disposal, rape, and even the abuse of a child – it all feels of a piece with Finn’s world, and of a piece with the dark underworld that Huck occasionally glimpses throughout his life. Moreover, Clinch’s idea to make Huck a mixed-race child is an interesting one; it certainly provides an interesting sense of why Huck is so different than the other children, and why he fits in so poorly everywhere he goes.
For all of that, though, Finn never really overcomes the question of “Yes, and?” that fills its pages. It’s a well-told novel, crafted nicely, and it brings this man to horrifying life. And yet, there’s never really a sense that this is a tale we needed to hear, or that it brings much new to Mark Twain’s classic beyond being a more literate and thoughtful piece of fan fiction than we’re used to. It’s compelling enough, and wonderfully crafted, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a book that would have worked just as well without relying on the name recognition of Twain’s novel.