Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Robert Coover, Huck Out West (2017)

Hey look, a new novel by the eighty-four-year-old Robert Coover!  And it’s...a sequel to Huckleberry Finn, of all things?  I did NOT see that coming!  But once I did, there was no way in heck I was not going to read that shit.  When you think about it, it’s kind of surprising that more writers haven’t essayed something like this with Twain’s safely-out-of-copyright work.  I mean, a few have, but they’re sure not well-known enough that I’m able to name them.  Will Coover be the one to turn the tide?!?  While no one could have predicted this, it actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it.  Coover has always been interested in the sort of Americana that Twain himself played a big part in creating.  The Origin of the Brunists is about weird, cultish, religious mania; The Public Burning is about our flavor of political insanity (and BOY do I wish that brilliant novel weren’t seeming more apropos than ever).  He’s also written novels about baseball, noir, and the Western.  This is a natural, really.

By way of context: my parents read me Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn when I was small (with the appropriate warning about the word that I should never, ever say), and they really made a strong impression on me, especially the latter, even though I know for a fact that much if not most of the social criticism zoomed over my head.  I went on to reread it at least once on my own, and I even sought out Twain’s cash-in sequels that I feel like most people have never even heard of, Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer Detective (I don’t remember much about them; looking back, I doubt they were actually very good, but I certainly devoured them eagerly enough at the time).  Later, I reread Huck in high school and again in college.  Not since then, but I think I’m still pretty darned familiar.

SO, THEN.  What’s Coover’s take on the milieu?  Well, as suggested at the end of the original Huck has indeed lit out for the territory, having spent time with Tom as a Pony Express rider and done a lot of wandering around, being an army scout, living with Indian tribes, &c.  It all proceeds rather non-linearly, but the book’s “present” takes place in the 1870s, in the settlement in South Dakota that would come to be called Deadwood; it’s a pleasant place for Huck to exist before the gold rush, but when that happens, it becomes considerably less so.

I had a bit of trouble getting into this at first, and that is because of my very familiarity with Twain.  Coover does a good imitation of Huck’s language, but the fact remains, while the book it’s a reasonable extrapolation, it’s not the same as the original.  It’s considerably darker and more violent, for one; although Huckleberry Finn was certainly pointed, it was still nominally a children’s book, and there was only so far he could go.  Also, although there’s not a lot of sex in the sequel, Huck is assuredly not presexual as he was in the original.  Is there anything wrong with that?  No reason there should be, exactly, but all these Adult Themes shoved in your face initially created the impression of a a sort of obscene parody of the original, like underground comix featuring Disney character getting stoned and having sex.

However, quickly enough, I started to appreciate what Coover was doing, and I’m actually kind of shocked by how good this book really is.  It’s an audacious conception that pays hella dividends.  Well you might ask: so since this is Coover, is this what you’d call a “postmodern” novel.  Well...kind of.  There’s the basic point that anyone writing in Twain’s idiom in the twenty-first century is going to have different sensibilities and goals than Twain himself did.  Recall Borges’ Pierre Menard,  the upshot of which is that, if Robert Coover had written The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, word-for-word the same as Twain did, you nonetheless couldn’t help but read it very differently.  So in that sense...yes.  But I would say Coover does a very good idea of squaring the circle—there are theoretical concerns that Twain wouldn’t have had, but even if you totally overlook them, you still have a good adventure yarn.  Still, being me, the chances that I would do that are...low.

We have to talk about the character of Tom Sawyer in this novel, which, I suspect, is what will cause a lot of readers to balk.  Now, as you may recall, the character doesn’t exactly cover himself in glory in the extremely problematic final section of Huckleberry Finn; Huck just wants to rescue Jim and escape, but Tom shows up and insists on playing out his Dumas fantasies which involve subjecting Jim to pointless indignities—all in spite of the fact that Tom knows what the other characters don’t: that Jim had already been freed, and that all of this was pointless.  STILL, he’s just a thoughtless kid; there’s nothing malevolent about him.

Well, about that...Coover’s Tom, as you might expect, is a very different kettle o’ fish.  One of the first things we see him doing is selling Jim back INTO slavery, which really was almost enough to drive one away from the book altogether (though let it be noted that Jim, while not a central character here, ultimately ends up doing reasonably okay by Coover’s standards).  And that’s not all: Coover’s Tom has significant DNA in common with the character of Uncle Sam from The Public Burning: all violent manifest destiny talk and enthusiastic persecution of things not perceived as “American” (communism in that novel; Native Americans in this one).  And he’s still very, very concerned with his image; he has a photographer follow him around to take his portrait in dramatic poses.  Essentially, his harmless boyish fantasies have metastasized; they’re not necessarily different in kind, but now A LOT of people are getting hurt.  His version of Americanism is all about fantasy; about simulacra.  When he plays at pirates as a kid, it’s charming.  When he does it as an’s horrifying.  Boy, imagine if we had a president who wants everyone to see him as a wily genius at war with whatever he vaguely perceives as “unamerican.”  Truly, a horrifying thought (although, it must be allowed, Tom is way smarter than this imaginary hypothetical president I'm thinking of).

There’s one part that really struck me: Huck has a Lakota friend, Eeteh who, like Huck himself, is a bit of an outsider to his people.  Eeteh occasionally tells Coyote stories, most notably one that ends like this:

...Snake’s assassin pals was all waiting for [Coyote] with knives and tomahawks and they chopped him into bits, then chopped the bits into bits, and thronged the pieces far out in the sky so’s he couldn’t noway be put back together again.  And that’s how all the other world out there got made.

I laughed.  Eeteh always told comical stories.  “Of course, he COULD be put back together, and that’s how the next story begins.  That lying sneakthief Snake is in trouble!”

Eeteh shook his head.  He warn’t smiling.  He says it’s the end of Coyote and his stories.  There ain’t no more.  All stories now will be Snake stories.

It was an awful story.  I don’t know why he told it to me.

Coyote isn’t necessarily good all the time, but he represents renewal and vitality.  Snake here is similarly clever, but it’s a more malevolent kind of cleverness that’s only concerned with its own power.  The idea—now things are different, and they will always have been different—is striking.  We are clearly invited to compare Snake and Coyote to Tom and Huck; it isn’t an exact comparison, but it’s incredibly interesting stuff.  Is Coyote really dead?  Where are we as a country, exactly?  It’s striking that this must’ve been written before the election.

To be clear: I fucking loved this novel.  I found it absolutely astonishing, only the more so because it really, really surprised me.  Maybe it shouldn’t’ve; I know how good Coover can be.  Still, a project like this is not trivial, and given that the only latterday Coover novel I’ve read is Noir, which failed to floor me, I don’t know how much I expected.  But I LOVE it when a writer in old age can still knock one out of the park.

Still, I should probably put some caveats here.  I’m probably about the perfect audience to appreciate this book; I like Twain, but I also really like Coover, and I like the twists be brings to the formula.  Still, it’s entirely possible that if you don’t like Coover’s sort of thing—if you’re just a fan of Twain—this will leave you cold.  You definitely have to accept Coover’s version of these characters.  Furthermore, as noted above, it’s a lot darker.  While Eeteh here is a pretty good character, he really can’t replace Jim as a friend for Huck, and the thing about the original was, as unpleasant as things could get on the shore, there was always the sense that the river was waiting with its redemptive power.  While there are a few moments of peace here, there’s nothing quite like that.  And finally, Twain was simply funnier.  Let’s not forget: sure, he was all about the social commentary, but he was also about a joke just for the sake of a joke.  Who can forget the tragic tale of Stephen Dowling Botts?

That last paragraph sounded negative, but I don’t want anyone to think I didn’t think Huck Out West fucking fan was fucking fantastic, because I did.  I badly need to read more Coover.  Furthermore, one is happy to note, as dark as the book is, and as unfortunately relevant to our current situation, it has a hopeful and more-or-less happy ending.  That’s more than you get from The Public Burning, and we need all the hope we can GET in this day’n’age, dammit.


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