The following review appeared 2 August 1999 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 1999 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Barbara Schmidt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Tarleton State University
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Mark Twain Remembers by Thomas Hauser, the latest entry using Twain as a central character in a work of fiction, has been a long time coming. Late in 1998, word leaked out that the noted Muhammad Ali biographer had written a work of fiction about a black boxer and his relationship with Mark Twain titled Harder Than It Looks. This reviewer promptly visited the Amazon.com web site and ordered a copy. After months of waiting, Amazon wrote that the book had been pulled from production and would not be published. Research revealed that the original publisher was experiencing severe financial difficulties and would not be able to fulfill the commitment to publish the volume.
Now, scheduled to ship this September with a new publisher--Barricade Publishers--under a different title and a pledge of $200,000 in accompanying promotional publicity, comes Mark Twain Remembers. Hauser, a practicing attorney and currently a contributing sports columnist with the HBO online web site, has a long list of successes in both fiction and nonfiction, including: The Beethoven Conspiracy; Missing; The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing; Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times; and Muhammad Ali: Memories.
In an interview regarding Mark Twain Remembers, Hauser related that the genesis of his latest novel came to him in a dream in 1987 that he jotted down on a note card. During the intervening years he began reading much of Twain's writing. His latest book is the result of his study of Twain's life and works combined with his own knowledge of the boxing world. In his preface to Mark Twain Remembers, Hauser reminds the reader that his is a work of fiction, but states, "I have commingled Mark Twain's words and ideas with my own. I invite the reader to suspend disbelief and enjoy" (7).
A first person narrative in Twain's voice, the story opens in April 1910, days prior to Twain's death, and reveals him looking back on his life--remembering six weeks during June and July of 1856 when he first ventured out on his own to Kansas and met up with a black freedman by the name of Hiram Kane, and his slave, a boxer by the name of Bones. Hiram Kane is a black version of P. T. Barnum traveling throughout Kansas challenging local men in the crowd to "Hit the nigger! Hit the nigger!" and offering a cash prize to anyone who can best his boxer Bones. Young Sam Clemens accepts the challenge, ends up in the dirt, and loses his wager to stay the course with Bones. In a twist of fate, Sam later ends up in a poker game against cardsharp Hiram Kane and manages to outcheat the cheater with Bones as the ultimate prize. Twenty-year-old Sam finds himself the owner of an aging thirty-three- year-old boxing slave. In a gesture of goodwill, Sam decides to free Bones, explaining, "No one has the right to treat another man like that" (71).
Sam proposes to throw in his lot with Bones and become his manager in a profit sharing venture. After a 4th of July success in the entertainment world of boxing, Sam is seduced by a young local female. However, his romantic illusions are soon shattered when he discovers his love interest has double-crossed him into signing a contract to fight Bones against Billy Morris, a white boxer working in partnership with their old nemesis Hiram Kane. Morris, a much younger and overpowering boxer, seems destined to end Bones' career with death in the ring or retrenchment back into servitude.
To proceed with a review giving the outcome of this final confrontation between good and bad, black and white, would require a "spoiler alert" and this reviewer will refrain from giving away the surprises in Hauser's story. The final pages of the novel conclude with a reasonably accurate biography of the remainder of Twain's life.
One of the most powerful chapters of this short ten-chapter novel is devoted to the background of the institution of slavery and its horrors--a picture that is painted to explain the death of Bones' parents and the sexual mutilation of young Bones himself. According to Hauser, he also considers this chapter to be the highlight of the novel.
The shortcoming that is evident throughout the novel for this reviewer is that the voice is not that of Mark Twain; nor is it the voice or dialect of a slave relating his story to Mark Twain; it is the voice of Hauser--a modern day historian and story teller--relating an intriguing narrative. Although familiar Twain quotations, maxims, and passages are sprinkled throughout the novel and are easily spotted by anyone familiar with Twain's writings, when it comes time for Hauser to write new Twain dialogue, the attempt falls short. In one passage where Sam discovers he's been horribly double-crossed by a young man, he retaliates with a mild, "Pete: you're a fat stupid ugly pig" (153). Writing as Mark Twain would think and speak is indeed harder than it looks.
The strength of the novel is in Hauser's story-telling ability and an ability to build the reader's tension and apprehension until the final confrontation between fighters in the boxing ring--an area of writing in which he is very much in his element. According to Hauser, he considers Mark Twain Remembers to be his best piece of fiction and a book he truly enjoyed writing. It is his hope that readers unfamiliar with Twain will come away from the novel with a greater interest in and motivation to read the works of the master.