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Fear and Jon Clinch's FINN
I am sitting in bed reading Finn by Jon Clinch. I found the book by wandering the alphabet in the fiction section of my local library, looking at titles and author's names--a habitual browse that sometimes results in a wonderful find, and sometimes in abject failure, as I fail to get along with the author or novel I choose by this anti-methodical search technique. Finn is a wonderful find.
When I was young I, like many young people, read Huckleberry Finn. It was not my introduction to Twain, for I had already read Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and The Prince and the Pauper, in addition to many of his short stories, which my father had in a well-worn paperback Collected Stories of edition. Twain's use of the word 'nigger' disturbed me, but, even at twelve, I understood that it was supposed to disturb me, that its use marked a world I did not want to live in and that Jim and Huck could not escape. Huck's voice, the innocent wildness of the boy on the river, with his fears, his hopes, his frustration, and his confusion, captured me, and we became friends, in collusion against the powers of his world, so set against him and Jim. I was not frightened on the river with Huck and Jim. I was not frightened by the figures on the shore, those bullies, braggarts, and deluded men and women of his age. There was only one thing in Huckleberry Finn that frightened me. Pap.
Pap was evil. There was no other word that fit him, and yet for most of my youth I could not readily identify why Pap was evil, while the other adults of the book were not, but merely foolish, savage, or deluded. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that the evil of Pap, the core of his corruption and savagery, were never reached in the novel, and Huck did not know it. He, too, was scared of Pap, but, like me, he was as frightened of the possibilities for destruction, sadism, and torment that Pap failed to reveal to him as he was of the duplicity and casual brutality Pap did reveal. With Pap, the surface was bad, but it was not the worst: there was something beyond that, something never expressed in word or symbol, that promised much, much worse.
Clinch's Finn addresses the much, much worse, the Pap beyond Huck's witnessing. I haven't finished the book yet, so this review is provisional, but insofar as I have read, Clinch does a wonderful job presenting a Pap my childhood self would find believable as the evil full-flesh version of the surface that slinks like a shadow through Huckleberry Finn. The man Clinch presents is one who could cast that shadow, unredeemable, and uninterested in redemption.
The book begins with a woman's body, skinned like a piece of game, floating down the river to be discovered by boys. As in Twain, children are the unwilling witnesses of adult deeds, and their lives are full of unexpected encounters with the brutality and corruption of the adult world. Children cannot escape the world adults create around them, but must navigate it. They have no other choice. The floating woman is Finn's, and it is he who has removed her skin. He gets rid of the skin, cooking it in an old, blind drunk's fire. He has killed her in the house that Huck will later encounter on the river, a crime he covers by removing her identity and whitewashing the inside of the home.
Finn is tied to the river, as Huck will be in a future that was written in the past. Huck uses it to flee civilization, while Finn lives upon it in a savage independence only partly of his making. For Finn would live in another manner if he could. He would live as the inheritor of a fortune, but he has been cast off and is not wanted. If he did have his fortune, he would likely remain savage, tied to the river, but he would not have to worry so much about having enough for a bottle of liquor and he would not have to tend his fishing lines. He would be, in a manner of speaking, a gentleman of leisure, only he would not use his leisure to better anything, the world or himself, but only to indulge in the corruption he already walks to a greater degree than his purse at the moment affords.
I grew up in the eighties. That was when I had my adolescence and began making snap judgments without appealing to the authority of my parents and teachers. The eighties were a strange decade. We called Charles Manson "Uncle Charlie". I am still not sure why. We told each other serial killer stories, and watched people protesting for and against the execution, long delayed, of Ted Bundy in Florida. Evil men were a hobby for many kids in the eighties, figures to be laughed at, toyed with, yet only partially believed in. True evil was encountered by other people, not by us, regardless of how close to us such encounters might fall. (When I was sixteen, the bodies of young girls turned up in the desert. One of these young girls had gone to my high school. Very few of the girls I knew were frightened by this. They assumed they would not be unlucky and would never meet the killer who dumped young women in the same desert teenagers used for bonfires and beer parties.) Of course, as adults we also believe that true evil happens over there, to people we do not know, certainly not to us. Those few moments when we believe evil can touch us, when we acknowledge our own vulnerability and that of our family and friends, are very uncomfortable, very disturbing, and break our equilibrium, the ease which makes us capable of normal, everyday life. In order to function in the world, we must believe that it functions, that there is order, that we will not be skinned or shot or stabbed as we pursue the thousand mundane objects of taking care of ourselves and our households.
Teenagers are largely immune to fear. Young children can be scared of anything; you never know exactly what a given child will perceive as worthy of fear, and often the feared object is everything but scary to an adult. Adults are also plagued by fear, but they find their fears rational, reasonable, the result of experience and knowledge. Adolescents are no longer children, and they feel compelled to prove this in many dangerous ways, but they are also not adults, and lack the experiences that compose and define our 'reasonable' fears. So, in the eighties I and my peers laughed at what should have frightened us and played with nightmares, toyed with satanic imagery and entertained ourselves by shocking our parents. Our parents, and even more, our grandparents, were so serious about the very things we toyed with, the images we played with, but in which we did not believe. (There were some of us who did believe, but we thought them fools, or mad. We certainly did not take them seriously.) The generational gap ensured that we were misunderstood, and this pleased us, because the fact that we were misunderstood proved that we were different from our parents; we were ourselves.
Maturity brings fear back. My father told me that I would know fear when I had children of my own, and he was right. The misadventures and threats I can imagine now are centered on threats to my son, and are sadly based on that which I know can happen, because it has happened to others. My son has brought me back to fear, a fear which is not theater, as the fears of my adolescence were mock dramas, consciously performed. The ambiguous, the solid forms behind the shadows, are once again, as they were in my childhood, part of my thought and my perception of the world. I know that somewhere, out there, Pap is alive and well.