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The following review appeared 6 March 2017 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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When Mark Twain wrote his two most famous novels about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, he briefly considered carrying his two young heroes into adulthood and then bringing them back to their village as old men. Wisely, he abandoned this idea and ended the stories while his protagonists were still adolescents, leaving them forever young and hopeful in readers' minds.
Later authors have imagined the boys as grown-ups. One of the best efforts is Bernard Sabath's commercially successful 1981 play, "The Boys in Autumn," in which Tom and Huck meet again in St. Petersburg in the 1920s. It is a bittersweet reunion. Tom tells of being a vaudeville showman for years, but he also admits to serving time in prison for child molestation. Huck, although the successful owner/operator of a hardware store, slowly admits to his old friend that he eventually poisoned his wife in an act of mercy killing to save her the pain of a terminal illness. In spite of all this, the play ends on a hopeful note for the future.
Now we have Robert Coover's Huck Out West. Coover, a novelist and short story writer, is a retired professor from Brown University. His previous novels have been described as "fabulism" and dark magic realism. Huck Out West is, indeed, a very strange, dark novel. As the title indicates, it is Huck's story and set about 25 years after Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn ends.
Coover has Huck narrate present and past events in a non-linear, haphazard, stream-of-consciousness fashion. Coover's attempts at duplicating Huck's dialect appear to be written for the eye and not for the ear. Otherwise, why use words like "crool," "new-monia," "vilent," when the correct spelling sounds the same? Coover is more successful at putting unique grammar into Huck's mouth with words like "meloncholical," "extincting," "rumbustious," "middlegating circumstances," and "owdacious." When Huck describes his experience of scouting for both sides during the Civil War, he labels them all "Confederals."
Mark Twain's characters Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher and Jim, also appear and disappear throughout the story. Huck is the same old Huck of his boyhood (except for growing a beard, occasionally visiting prostitutes and routinely drinking whisky--which he never did as a youth). He is still living a survival, stray cat, hand-to-mouth existence, subsisting on odd jobs like buffalo hunting, riding shotgun on stagecoaches, horse wrangling and scouting for the military and immigrant wagon trains. He makes no long-range plans--intervals of happiness being his only goal and expectation--and tries to keep his head down out of the line of fire from human scuzz-balls. He's witnessed what havoc and cruelty the desire for gold has caused and thus considers the possession of this yellow metal very bad luck. He has retained his facility for lying quickly and expertly to keep himself out of trouble. But his kind-hearted core of goodness remains. He still cringes from violence and is non-judgmental and sometimes forgiving, if not compassionate, toward the worst of those around him--from outlaws to generals.
Huck's best friend at this point in his life is a Lakota Sioux named Eeteh who saved Huck's life after a rattler bite, The two have much in common, each being outcasts from their own people. Coover lays out the major episodes of Huck's back story in fits and starts. The reader finds that Huck has been on the run since deserting a scouting job with the cavalry after he refuses an order by General Hard-Ass (Custer) to lure the Lakota Sioux into an ambush. Huck and Eeteh have settled into a peaceful, wooded area in the Black Hills. But an old prospector discovers a gold rock in the gulch. In short order, all hell breaks loose when thousands--mostly the dregs of white society--flood illegally into the area in a wild stampede for gold. Drunkenness, robbery, torture, murder and hanging follow, while the hills are being denuded of trees for lumber and the streams fouled by placer mining. Meanwhile, the Indians who retain the land by treaty are ignored or eliminated. Manifest Destiny is not mentioned by name, but Coover shows his concept of it to be as ugly as many of those who are carrying it out.
Coover includes elements of fantasy in this story. For example, when Huck breaks a wild horse named Tongo, and is the only one who is able to ride him, the Indians dub the animal "Spirit Horse." Huck clings to him bareback as the horse goes galloping with lightning speed, on what seems like a trip around the world on a flying carpet, through Indian villages, forests, deserts, canyons, wheat fields, and army forts, sometimes dodging flying bullets. To heighten the reader's sense of fantasy, Coover has Eeteh spend considerable time relating the doings of talking animals like Coyote, Snake, and Lark who have human traits and are part of his tribe's creation mythology.
When Huck gets crossways with several outlaws, they decide to hang him for a murder he didn't commit. As Huck is about to be dropped through the gallows trap, a white-hatted, mustachioed Tom Sawyer gallops in from nowhere, guns blazing, and shoots the rope in two as Huck falls. (A trick device used in some old westerns, but nearly impossible in reality). Loyalty to an old childhood buddy is about the only redeeming characteristic Coover's Tom Sawyer has going for him. Tom quickly shows that his natural leadership ability has been twisted to serve his vanity. Filled with a massive machismo, he's a bombastic braggart, liar, cheat, pseudo-lawyer and con artist who proclaims himself mayor of the new boomtown of Deadwood. He dresses in gaudy clothes and bulldozes his way through life like a snake-oil salesman. However, that's not the worst of it. Coover reveals that when Tom, Huck, and the freed slave Jim came west to join the Pony Express, Jim was too big for a rider, so Tom sold Jim to the slave-holding Cherokees.
Coover's Huck acts completely out of character to the boy created by Mark Twain by not standing up against Tom for this betrayal of their old friend Jim. Huck's conscience assails him, but he still caves in to the bossy Tom's reasoning that Jim needed somebody to tell him what to do. Years later, Huck discovers Jim working as a cook on a wagon train. Jim says he'd been sold twice more, but was finally bought from an abusive owner by this group of Christian immigrants who'd brought him to Jesus. (I thought Mark Twain's Jim was a Christian when he was owned by the Widow Douglas). Though all slaves are now free, Jim is content to stay with the missionaries in hopes of finding his family out west. Then Jim disappears from Coover's story for good.
Coover reveals that Tom's past included a marriage to Becky Thatcher whom he abandoned along with their unborn child. When Tom found the long-lost father he never knew, he was disgusted with the pitiful old man who was living with a whore and selling used hats from the back of a wagon. Tom murdered his father, and the whore who witnessed his crime. "He warn't NOBODY, Huck! He didn't have no STYLE!" He laments when relating the killings. This is rock bottom for any depiction I've ever read of a sympathetic Twain character.
When Becky Thatcher appears in Coover's tale, Huck is silently dismayed to learn she has turned to prostitution to survive. However, she's upbeat and matter-of-fact about it. When Huck wonders how she gets out of all her voluminous undergarments, she says that Tom always wanted to see what was under them, and he finally did when they were lost in the cave and facing certain death. Later Becky invites a grimy Huck to jump into the bathtub naked with her and he accepts.
Coover's depiction of the adult Huck, Becky and Tom make this novel an unlikely recommendation for younger readers. Previous authors have speculated on the behavior of Twain's characters beyond the original novels and lost most of the charm of Twain's story in the process. This novel falls into that category. To me, this novel is a tongue-in-cheek fantasy with some entertaining and ribald humor. It is an unconventional book interspersed with some outrageous episodes, perhaps thrown in for shock value or for what Coover deems necessary dark realism.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Tim Champlin is the author of 40 books,
mostly historical fiction, including Tom Sawyer and the Ghosts of Summer
(2010), Mark Twain Speaking from the Grave (2016), the upcoming Tom
and Huck's Howling Adventure (2017) and Tom Sawyer's Dark Plot