by Jon Clinch
Why take a side character from one of America's most beloved novels and spin him off into his own book? Was it really necessary? Maybe not. But Twain does seem to invite it, leaving what amounts to an unsolved mystery in the middle of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Huck and Jim find, floating on the river, an old house occupied by a dead man shot in the back and a host of strange objects. The walls are covered in ghastly pictures and symbols. We later realize the corpse belonged to Huck's ne'er-do-well father. Who shot him? How did the house end up in the river? What is the meaning of the collected items and the decorated walls?
Jon Clinch goes beyond the meticulous solution of this mystery to create an unforgettable character of his own. Finn is an awful man; a drunkard, racist, thief, murderer, rapist, and, arguably, a slave-owner. His life follows a logic of its own, more a matter of physics -- like the steamboat Finn witnesses one night exploding into flames -- than any real intention. Finn doesn't seem like someone you'd want to spend time with, but at the same time he's fascinating, and, sad to say, not the worst man on the river. There's a self-destruction waiting in many of us, and Finn rides it all the way to the end, even as some abused and forgotten part of his soul struggles to make things right.