What kind of adulthood would you have imagined for Huck Finn?
Coover brilliantly envisions what comes next when Huckleberry Finn lights out for the territories. After leaving St. Petersburg with Tom Sawyer, he hits the high and low points of the Wild West Zelig-like, riding for the Pony Express, witnessing the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men, wrangling horses for a Custer-like general, getting snakebit, becoming an “ornerary Lakota Sioux,” and pitching up in the Black Hills just before the Gold Rush. Coover nails Mark Twain’s tone and voice (including the hilarious malapropisms) but, more than that, evokes the deadpan dark humor and social commentary that made Huck’s Adventures infinitely superior to Tom’s.
This picaresque tale is both a dynamiting of America’s cherished myth of westward expansion and a surprisingly affecting imagining of its two most beloved literary boys as adults—the image of Tom Sawyer’s bald spot will linger awhile. Tom, with his penchant for self-aggrandizement and telling “stretchers,” takes to adulthood like a duck to water, leaving Huck with plans to become a lawyer. But Huck remains at heart a boy, observing, “It was almost like there was something wicked about growing up.” Afraid of “sivilizing” influences as ever, he remains in awe of the simple beauty of nature yet struggles with loneliness and melancholy in the midst of the awfulness around him.
And the world is wicked indeed. Tom has sold Jim back into slavery; Becky Thatcher, abandoned by Tom, is now a prostitute; and the general, a long-haired, dandy psychopath, wants to hang Huck for desertion despite the fact he never actually joined the army. As gold-crazed prospectors crowd the Black Hills, bison are hunted to extinction, and Indian nations face genocide, Huck plays helpless witness, less and less able to avoid people and towns to enjoy his precious loafing under the sky and stars. And when Tom triumphantly arrives in Deadwood, tyrannizing both Huck and the town, the gentle-hearted Huck must choose between his old friend, whose lies justify his nihilistic whims, and new friend Eeteh, a Lakota outcast and kindred spirit whose stories of Coyote and Snake speak to timeless truths.
Reimaginings of classics are nothing new. From The Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) to The Wind Done Gone (2001), many writers have opened a dialogue with canonical works, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has itself inspired other tales in Twain’s universe. But this one ranks among the best. Fifty years after the publication of his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists (1966), and in a much more accessible mode than in some of his other postmodern fictions, Coover delivers a near-masterpiece. It’s pitch-perfect and laceratingly funny but also a surprisingly tender, touching paean to the power of storytelling and the pains of growing up.