Huck Out West, by Robert Coover, WW Norton & Company, 320 pp, $15.95, ISBN: 978-0393355499
Conternarratives, by John Keene, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 400 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1910695135
At the end of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, on the eve of the Civil War, the novel’s teenage protagonist famously vows to escape “sivilization” and “light out for the Territory”. Newly returned from his adventures on the Mississippi and cloistered, despite his best efforts, in the suffocating domesticity of town life, Huck plots to continue his adventures by heading for the frontier that, at the mid-nineteenth-century moment in which Twain’s narrative is set, was opening up rapidly to commerce and conquest.
This narrative setup seems, you might think, to be crying out for a sequel. Twain certainly thought so: he began and then abandoned a story – published long after his death in its unfinished form as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians – that would take the adventuresome pair into the dynamic environment of the swiftly changing West. Over the years, tempted by the imaginative richness, enduring notoriety and open-ended conclusion of the book, more than one American writer has followed Twain’s path and sought out this imaginative “territory”. Twain’s 1884 novel, from which Hemingway famously claimed that “all American literature” springs, is surely one of the more frequently adapted in that literature, with a substantial list of rewritings that either fill in the margins of the text or extend the story beyond its narrative frame to explore possible futures for its characters.
The past fifty years, for example, have seen rewrites such as John Seelye’s The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1970) and Greg Matthews’s The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1988), which, respectively, rewrite and extend Twain’s story. More recently, Nancy Rawles’s My Jim (2005), written in the voice of Jim’s wife, Sadie, and Jon Clinch’s Finn (2007), which tells the story of Huck’s father, exploit the possibilities of a text whose forward-charging energy leaves tempting gaps around the edges of its narrative world. (Twain’s novel has also fallen victim to the plague of zombie-related publishing cash-ins at the beginning of this decade, resulting in a genre adaptation called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim (2011) that, if the reviews are to be believed, is every bit as ill-advised as you might expect.)
The Huck-adaptation microgenre has expanded in recent years with two distinguished additions: Robert Coover’s Huck Out West (2017), and “Rivers”, a key story in John Keene’s collection Counternarratives (2015). Both works invoke the embedded narrative contexts and echoing historical resonances of what Linda Hutcheon has described as “historiographic metafiction”, drawing on the reader’s familiarity with a canonical text and a near-mythical historical period in order to find new grooves within well-worn stories.
In defining “historiographic metafiction”, in fact, Hutcheon takes as one of her primary examples the novel for which Robert Coover tends to be most celebrated, The Public Burning (1969). That novel anatomised the paranoia of the postwar US through its darkly satirical portrayal of a young Richard Nixon and its personification of Uncle Sam as a maniacal imperialist; Coover’s eleventh novel, Huck Out West (2017), returns to this mode of metafictional critique and its subversion of American literary iconography by extrapolating Twain’s protagonist’s journey into adulthood.
The novel’s central conceit is that Huck, along with Tom and Jim, follows through on his determination, expressed in the final pages of Twain’s novel, to head West and “go for howling adventures among the injuns”. Coover uses his gift for narrative voice to ventriloquise Huck’s distinctive vernacular, with all of its endearing malapropisms and coinages, as he recounts his many experiences over a span of fifteen years or so. Huck’s description of his life from the onset of the Civil War to the centenary of the Declaration of Independence in 1876 takes the reader through the rapid social upheaval on the frontier during these years, as the gold rush of the mid-1870s brings with it rapid settlement, rapacious accumulation and exploitation of resources and intensified slaughter of Native American communities.
Coover preserves, more or less, the episodic boy’s-adventure-story format of Twain’s novel, contriving a plot that deftly recycles key elements of its source material – robbers, coincidences, unexpected discoveries of treasure, and of course Huck’s propensity to both attract and then narrowly escape from trouble – even as it tends to arrange these elements in a distinctly melancholy key. The plot isolates Huck early on, separating him from Tom and leading him through a series of picaresque capers and near escapes, a brief reunion with Jim, captivity among the Lakota tribe, and a lasting friendship with one of their number. Huck works as a hired hand for both sides in the Civil War, signs up with the army before his essentially pacifistic nature causes him to desert, and ends up in a valley in the Black Hills of Dakota that is about to be overrun by gold prospectors. Along the way, he is a sober witness to the violence of westward expansion and to the narrative processes by which imperial history is constructed:
What happened a few minutes later come to be called a famous battle in the history books and the general he got a power of glory out of it, but a battle is what it exactly warn’t. Whilst me and Star watched over the spare horses, the soldier boys galloped howling through the burning tents and slaughtered more’n a hundred sleepers, which the general called warriors, but who was mostly wrinkled up old men, women, and little boys and girls. I seen eyes gouged out and ears tore off and bellies slit open with their innards spilling out like sausages.
Tom Sawyer leaves the book early on only to return, as in Twain’s novel, like a bad penny. Tom represents a dynamic, unreflective counterpart to the ruminative, humane Huck; as an adult, he retains his mischievous nature, his boyish charm and his propensity for wanton cruelty, all of which qualities enable him to thrive in the brutal frontier atmosphere of the West. Early on in the novel, we see him enthusiastically drag Huck along to a mass hanging of Native Americans (based on a real historical event that took place in December of 1862, in which thirty-eight Sioux Indian men were killed in Mankato, Minnesota in the largest mass hanging in US history); when he returns in the novel’s final act, he quickly assumes charge of the prospecting town of Deadwood, using his rhetorical skills and gifts for deception to channel the community’s acquisitive desires into a vengeful, patriotic bloodlust.
The cheerfully unhinged Tom is presented as a rabid emissary of Manifest Destiny, a demagogue whose insistence on putting America first appears little more than a front for his own personal enrichment. (It’s also worth noting that Tom brings around a personal photographer to record his carefully-staged exploits, showing himself a master of the nascent art of fake news.) On the occasion of the centenary of American independence, he unsubtly outlines his thinking with the kind of bludgeoningly disingenuous superlatives with which we have all become painfully familiar:
And now, a hundred years on, where can the sivilizing consequences of such get-up-and-go Americaness be most best seen? Why, right here in the Gulch, Hucky! We ARE America, clean to the bone! This is where the wonderfullest nation the world has ever seen is getting born! I BELIEVE that! It’ll be GREAT! A new land of freedom and progress and brotherhood! A perfect new Jerusalem right here on earth! And you and me are PART of it! … They call us outlaws because they say we’re on tribal land, so we got to show our amaz’n American PATRIOTICS! These lands is rightfully OURN and we’re going to set up a Liberty Pole and raise the American flag on it to PROVE it!
Huck is a reluctant witness to this jingoism, and to the militaristic march of “sivilization” as it rampages across the land. His relentlessly unheroic perspective, a kind of humanitarian pragmatism that resists grand narratives and imperialistic ambitions, offers a partial antidote to the warlike machinations of his compatriots, and his wry humour makes the novel’s relentless violence bearable.
Huck Out West ends with its disillusioned, somewhat traumatised hero again setting out for new territory. This time, his companion is his Native American friend Eeteh, and the provisional destination is Mexico. “We got to go where the war ain’t,” Huck says to his companion in the final chapters, in about as much of a political statement as Coover allows his protagonist: the novel seems to grant Huck his withdrawal from the cruelty of his society, while making it clear that its expansionist ideology no longer has any place for him.
A shorter and, in some ways, more radical rewriting of Twain’s novel can be found in John Keene’s remarkable collection Counternarratives (published in the US by New Directions and in the UK by Fitzcarraldo). “Rivers”, a centrepiece of the book, exemplifies its revisionist narrative method of scrupulously enacting forgotten and marginalised voices from the history of the Americas.
Like Coover, Keene ventures beyond the story’s narrative frame to consider the fate of its protagonists in the coming Civil War. The story revolves around two meetings between Jim and Huck. Told in Jim’s voice, it pulls off a crucial change in narrative perspective by presenting an interior monologue that unfolds a revealingly fraught sequence of encounters between the former slave and his erstwhile companions. In the first of these, Jim (now living in St Louis as a free man) has an unexpected encounter with Huck and Tom on the street, and the resulting conversation is a deeply uncomfortable one.
It is Sawyer, in fact, who recognises Jim and curtly orders him to stop, saying: “Ain’t you Jim Watson, you, that keeps on walking without stepping to the side when you see two gentlemen approaching, like you ain’t heard one of ’em call out your name?” The ensuing dialogue replicates the power dynamic not only of pre-Civil War Missouri but also of the bigoted policing practices that structure recent works like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, with Tom as the bad cop and Huck as, if not the good cop, then at least the reluctant, guilty liberal cop. The wary, reserved Jim enters into a guarded and tense conversation with the two prosperous young white men; Tom hectors Jim with intrusive, loaded questions about his activities and lectures him about the dangers of abolitionism while Huck looks on in discomfort. In his own telling (the story is structured as an interview with him conducted by a journalist many years later), Jim describes the careful deceptions required to navigate the moment:
I said, “My business, Huckleberry, is just working hard and living my life, and I don’t know nothing about no Lovejoy or Torrey” – though I knew good and well who they both were, what free man didn’t know the names of the abolitionist heroes – “or the Mrs Stowe lady” – and who in the last year hadn’t heard of her or her book? – “and I haven’t ever considered going west.”
Huckleberry nodded, but Sawyer was watching me closely. He said nothing for a while, until I moved to take my leave and walk away. As soon as I stirred he laughed, more a cackle than an expression of humour, leaned close to me and said loudly, as passersby looked on, “You’d better watch yourself, Jim, you hear me? Good thing we know you but you walking these streets like they belong to you, and don’t to no nigger, no matter what some of you might think these days, so you watch it, cause the time will come when even the good people like me and Huck here have had enough.” He clapped me hard on the shoulder as he said this, and I thought to cock him cold in his wire-lipped mouth, but I did not want to do anything to lose my tavern or my freedom, so I said, “I hear that, Tom,” and he said, losing his laugh, though Huckleberry was already smiling now, “You call me Tom Sawyer, Sir, old man,” and I said, “YesMissTomSawyerSoilMan,” so fast it wasn’t clear whether I’d left out the “Mr” or the “Sir” or added the “Old Man,” and he looked hard at me, almost smiling, reminding me in a firm, cold voice, “Boy, I’m warning you, you had better watch yourself.”
In between these snatches of dialogue, Jim reveals to the reader an outer and inner life more complex than anything suggested in Twain’s novel. The narrator informs us that he left Missouri in order to escape the threat of being abducted into slavery again, travelled to Chicago with his family, returned to the Mississippi alone to make a living, set up a successful riverside tavern and settled into a polyamorous relationship with two women, with whom he lives in a non-traditional family arrangement. Crucially, we are told that Jim has changed his name to James Alton Rivers, dropping the surname of the Watsons who previously owned his body and adding the signifier of his means of movement and escape.
The story then engineers a more startlingly direct confrontation, following the logic of the impending Civil War to its brutal conclusion. Jim recounts the story of his decision to volunteer for the Union and of how he found himself involved in a sudden battle with Confederate forces. As he raises his rifle, he notes a familiar face on the ditch opposite:
By midday we were creeping on our hands and knees like turtles across green expanse at the base of Palmito Hill when a fusillade, followed by a brigade of Confederates, engaged us … there was a stand of Montezuma cypresses … and when I rounded them flat on my stomach, creeping forward like a panther I saw it, that face I could have identified if blind in both eyes, him, in profile, the agate eyes in a squint, that sandy ring of beard collaring the gaunt cheeks, the soiled gray jacket hanging around the sun-reddened throat, him crouching reloading his gun, quickly glancing up and around him so as not to miss anything.
The story’s final paragraph fuses introspection, resentment, and regret as the logic of history pulls Huck and his fellow defenders of slavery into Jim’s firing line:
[A]nd I looked up and he still had not seen me, this face he could have drawn in his sleep, these eyes that had watched his and watched over his, this elder who had been like a brother, a keeper, a second father as he wondered why this child was taking him deeper and deeper into the heart of the terror, why south instead of straight east to liberation, credit his and my youth or ignorance or inexperience, for which I forgive him and myself but I came so close to ending up in a far worse place than I ever was, and I heard Anderson or someone call out in the distance, and raised my gun, bringing it to my eye, the target his hands which were moving quickly with his own gun propped against his shoulder, over his heart, and I steadied the barrel, my finger on the trigger, which is when our gazes finally met, I am going to tell the reporter, and then we can discuss that whole story of the trip down the river with that boy, his gun aimed at me now, other faces behind his now, all of them assuming the contours, the lean, determined hardness of his face, that face, there were a hundred of that face, those faces, burnt, determined, hard and thinking only of their own disappearing universe, not ours, which was when the cry broke across the rippling grass, and the gun, the guns, went off.
Jim’s voice, as these extracts show, is rich, precise, and elegant in a way that departs radically from Twain’s novel. Keene’s method is to not only give Jim a new name but to create an entirely new linguistic register, a voice that – while risking anachronism in the distance it travels from its source text – implicitly rebukes the racial imagination of the original story’s author.
Both Coover and Keene, as we’ve seen, amplify the violence of Twain’s story, using the characters’ transition to adulthood as a way of raising the ethical stakes of the boys’ attitudes towards the white supremacist milieu in which they have come of age. These attitudes are, in both cases, identified with Tom, who inhabits a more or less straightforwardly villainous role. The portrayal of the characters of Huck and Jim, on the other hand, is more complex. In Jim’s case, both authors find themselves responding to one of the most controversial tensions in Twain’s novel – its celebration of freedom and interracial friendship alongside its one-dimensional portrayal of the central black character. Coover doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with Jim, bringing him back for a cameo and then brusquely dispensing with him, while Keene’s Jim is almost unrecognisably different from the version in either Twain or Coover. Both authors, though, locate much of the narrative tension in Huck’s reluctant – and yet, for the most part, steadfast – friendship with the cruel and power-hungry Tom, probing the limits of Huck’s tolerance for violence and the extent to which he is willing to examine his own complicity in his companion’s exploits.
In this way, these works might be seen as examples of what we can now wistfully refer to as “Obama fiction”, late-term responses to the forty-fourth US president and his optimistic ideology of dialogue and bipartisan compromise with an opponent that turned out to be maddeningly committed to destruction and unreason. In discussing George Saunders’s recent novel Lincoln in the Bardo, critic Lee Konstantinou identifies a tension within Saunders’s portrayal of Lincoln, describing its source as the lurking realisation that “a sentimental politics that celebrates kindness and scorns ungentleness is not nearly up to the task of overcoming domination and exploitation”. These fictions, written during Obama’s second term (Coover’s novel appeared in early 2017) appear to imply a similar argument, dramatising the limits of Huck’s simple humanity and tolerance and forcing the beloved character towards a moment of political commitment.
Both authors, too, highlight the metafictional elements already present in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which is, after all, a novel full of competing narratives, disingenuous cover stories and childish fantasies). The important questions, in this context, become both ethical and metafictional ones that have come to seem far more urgent in the era of the Stable Genius: What stories do we choose to listen to? In what terms have we articulated our social reality? And how exactly do you deal with an intimate friend whose understanding of that reality is, upon close examination, murderously delusional?
At one point in Keene’s story, we see Huck suddenly aware of his discomfort, caught between competing allegiances and struggling to wrest free control of his destiny. As the conversation between the three men continues on its uneasy path, Jim describes how “Tom chuckled as he spoke, Huck for his part peering off into the roadway, as though he was searching for a way out of the story Tom was telling and a new path into himself.” While Coover grants Huck a glimpse of this way out, allowing him to reject Sawyer and at least open up the possibility of escape, Keene ties him irrevocably to the path Tom has set out for him – a path that leads, finally, towards the barrel of his friend’s gun.
Tim Groenland is a teaching fellow in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin.