By October 23, 2008 1 Comments Read More →

MEN ALWAYS FLOAT FACE DOWN

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Finn by Jon Clinch.  Random House, 2007.

This novel begins with a body floating down the Mississippi River, skinned and bloated, face up in the water until discovered by some boys.  “I’ll bet it is old Finn,” says one of them until another, with superior knowledge of the ways of the world, announces that it must be a woman as it is floating face up.  Men always float face down. 

From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Clinch has taken as his inspiration the scene wherein Huck and Tom find a man dead in rather bizarre circumstances.  Because Tom does not allow Huck to see the dead man’s face, Clinch has decided that the man is none other than Pap Finn, Huck’s notorious father. 

In speculating on Pap’s fate, Clinch has created an entirely new novel that begins with the death of a woman, wanders back and forth through time, and ends with an explanation of how Pap ends up floating face down on a bed in a sea of chaos in his ruined shack. 

While along the way we have many chances to re-learn what happened to Huckleberry, this novel is really about the ominous and amoral presence of Pap Finn.  He is an alcoholic and abusive man, racist and misogynist as well.  Surviving by trap fishing on the river, he sells his stock for a meager amount of supplies and a major amount of booze.  Under the constant shadow of his disapproving father James Manchester Finn, or The Judge, Finn also has a peculiar and slightly criminal relationship with his brother Will, the town’s lawyer.  One of the ironies of the book is the question of whether The Judge is really any better a father than his evil son. 

The challenging use of time in this novel allows us to see Finn as a young man, long before he becomes a father.  Shockingly to everyone, Finn takes up with a black runaway named Mary and the two decide to name their mulatto child Huckleberry.  The complexity of dealing with Finn and Mary’s relationship, especially regarding his obvious racism and his mistreatment of all, is just one of the parallel elements established by Clinch in this novel.  The many parallels will make amble opportunity to develop challenging questions for a book discussion group. 

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is a line in the sand that separates the two communities of Lasseter, Illinois, and St. Petersburg, Missouri.  In one, blacks can live free.  In the other, they must deal with being considered no better than a piece of property.  Setting is key to this novel, with the river a constant reminder of the ebb and flow of circumstances.  Clinch is masterful at never letting the reader forget where this novel is taking place. 

For those who might want to try this book for a discussion group, there is a reader’s guide available at the publisher’s website:  http://www.randomhouse.com/rhpg/finn

 

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

1 Comment on "MEN ALWAYS FLOAT FACE DOWN"

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  1. cynthiabaxter@metagenics.com' Cynthia says:

    This is a great book and the author is very involved with the reading communities and is accessible. If you haven’t read the book yet – do so – you do not have to read Twain’s book, but it’s helpful – also, when you are done…re-read the first chapter for a little gotcha…

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