Revisiting Huckleberry Finn's America—by picking up where Mark Twain left off.
Coover’s 11th novel borrows its protagonist—and its inspiration—from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but don’t be deceived: this is less pastiche or sequel than a project with deeper roots. Taking place in the Dakotas during the decade after the end of the Civil War, the book follows Twain’s eponymous protagonist, now an adult, through a series of misadventures, including a turn as a Pony Express rider, some time spent living among the Lakota Sioux, and a difficult engagement with Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry Regiment, which ultimately met its fate at the Battle of the Greasy Grass. If such a setup seems reminiscent of Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man (1964), however, Coover has something more than satire on his mind. Rather, he is out to deconstruct not a genre but American literary iconography. In his telling, Tom Sawyer, who keeps turning up like a bad penny, has long since ceased to be a charming bad boy; he is now a zealot for public hangings and worse. “Anyways, Huck,” he explains, “EVERYTHING’S a hanging offense. Being ALIVE is. Only thing that matters is who’s doing the hanging and who’s being hung.” Becky Thatcher, meanwhile, abandoned by Tom when she was six months pregnant, has become a prostitute. These are not gratuitous turns but extrapolations based on the characters’ limited possibilities in a world defined by brutality. Coover effectively mirrors Twain’s style and Huck’s voice as well as the peripatetic movement of the original. More to the point, though, he is after a consideration, or critique, of the narrative of westward expansion, in which American hegemony was recast as opportunity and morality became an inconvenient truth at best. “We ARE America, clean to the bone!” Tom enthuses to his erstwhile friend late in the novel. “A perfect new Jerusalem right here on earth!.…They call us outlaws because they say we’re on tribal land, so we got to show our amaz’n American PATRIOTICS! These lands is rightfully OURN and we’re going to set up a Liberty Pole and raise the American flag on it to PROVE it!”
This novel reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.