The Finn in question is not Huck, but his father, a “strange sad monster” in newcomer Clinch’s bold and deeply disturbing work.
Bad as he was in Twain’s masterpiece, here Pap Finn has ballooned into something far worse: “Incarnate personal evil.” Clinch eschews a linear narrative, looping back and forth between time periods; he aims to cast a wide net, pillorying not just one individual but the pathology of racism. That began with Pap’s own father, Judge Finn, who paid double for a white servant to avoid proximity to blacks. Pap inherits the racism while hungering for black women, the choicest of forbidden fruit. The woman who lasts the longest is Mary, stolen by Finn off a sternwheeler. He locks her up in a cabin on the Judge’s grounds until they’re discovered and banished; Finn strangles the tattletale responsible (his first murder). Finn and Mary move to a ramshackle house by the Mississippi; a savvy riverman, Finn runs his trotlines, sells his fish and spends the proceeds on whiskey. In time, Mary gives birth to Huck, who can pass for white, a huge relief to Finn. A few incidents duplicate those in Twain, but the novels could not be more different; instead of Huck’s unlettered child’s voice, we have an omniscient narrative, grave, erudite and rich in the secretions of adult knowledge; terse dialogue acts as an effective counterpoint. All along, Clinch’s intent is to probe the nature of evil. Mary and Huck briefly escape Finn’s drunken reign of terror and are taken in by the Widow Douglas; Finn reclaims them and strangles Mary in her sleep, then skins her like a rabbit. Much later, Finn scribbles incriminating drawings on his walls; whether or not they show a conscience at work, they will lead directly to Finn’s own murder by another black woman, his next intended victim.
Despite needlessly confusing chronology, a memorable debut, likely to make waves.