Huck Finn's father takes center stage in new novel

Posted: Friday, February 23, 2007

LANSDALE, Pa. - Far from the murky waters of the Mississippi River, at a sunny kitchen table with a pretty suburban view, one of the nastiest, scariest characters in Southern fiction has been reanimated.

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In his debut novel, "Finn," Jon Clinch introduces readers to the nefarious world of Huckleberry Finn's father, whom the author calls "a brute of the highest order."

A violent alcoholic and unrepentant racist, Pap Finn turns up in Mark Twain's 1884 novel as a corpse floating down the Mississippi - nude, with a bullet in his back - inside a shack containing a wooden leg, black cloth masks, a baby's bottle, women's underwear and other incongruous items. Clinch used the shack and its cryptic cargo as clues to Pap Finn's loathsome life, and the springboard for themes in the book.

"The contents of the room are completely bizarre; it's like something out of a horror movie," Clinch said. "It seemed to me, taking Mark Twain very seriously as a craftsman and as a moralist, these things were not random. They were there to serve a purpose."

Each of the items makes an appearance in "Finn," which explores racism and hatred, broken families, fathers and sons, and what turns a man into a monster.

Ahead of its release Tuesday by Random House, Clinch's first published novel has garnered substantial praise including coveted starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. A coast-to-coast book tour is upcoming.

You could call it a daring move for an author to tread inside the boundaries of an iconic work such as "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," but the former advertising executive said he found it more liberating than intimidating.

"It was freeing," he said, because characters and story lines from Twain were already there for him to expand, diminish or ignore as he desired. It's also heartening to Clinch that Twain scholars have largely given positive reviews to his book. Many have said that "Finn" stands on its own and that reading or rereading Twain's classic is not required to enjoy it.

Kent Rasmussen, author of several books on Twain and who has read "Finn," called it a powerful book that might make some academics rethink "Huck Finn" and larger issues of race and slavery in the South. He also expects it will make waves among Twainophiles.

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