To say Jon Clinch's writing talent matches his literary ambition is high praise indeed. In his bleak and savage Finn, Clinch masterfully creates the series of circumstances which lead James Manchester Finn, father to inimitable Huckleberry, to the peculiar surroundings of his death.

Finn is a man adrift. Torn like the border state he lives in, he is trapped between his inherited hatred of miscegenation and his lust for black women. It is the latter, in the form of a revolution-minded slave named Mary that he takes to his bed, which sunders his relationship with his own father.

His early years with Mary are the only time of normalcy told in a series of flashbacks that will leave linear-minded readers in the dust in Finn's existence. At his sober best, Finn still gives off a violent, incendiary heat.

The catalyst for his demise is when he and Mary skip this sentence if you don't wish the mild surprise spoiled have a child, who of course is Huck.

The three live a manageably hardscrabble existence until a man insults Huck's half-caste status in Finn's presence. Finn hurts the man badly enough to be sent to prison. When he gets out, his jealousy and bigotry quickly make him recognizable as the monster Mark Twain created. The updated Finn owes more to Cormac McCarthy than to Twain, however. Post-prison, he is a ruthless, murderous, nihilistic lover of rotgut whisky and hater of virtually everything. He schemes to gain possession of his son and by extension the boy's $6,000, and his single-mindedness nearly wins through. Clinch's language is as spare as his characters, who are nearly all soulless, unapologetic caricatures of the American frontier. There are no heroes here. Huck himself exists here mostly as a counterpunch to his father's deeds, gracefully allowing him to take center stage. And Finn possesses that stage with his ungodly presence, dangerous as a rattlesnake and forlorn as a desert wind.

Ian Schwartz writes from San Diego, California.

 

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