JAMES BALLOWE Book Review: HUCK OUT WEST

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HUCK OUT WEST

By Robert Coover

W.W. Norton & Company, January 2017

320 pp. Hardcover. $26.95

ISBN 978-0-393608-44-1

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Huck as He Was Meant to Become

In Conjunctions 12, 1988, Robert Coover published twenty-two single-sentence meditations titled, “The Asian Lectures (In anticipation of the question, ‘Why do you write?’).” Many of these responses fit what I am about to say in this review. But one stands out: “Because the world is re-invented every day and this is how it is done.” Coover’s latest novel, his fifteenth, resurrects for the reader not only Huck Finn but also his creator, Mark Twain. In Huck Out West, Coover takes on what Twain was not successful in doing himself when he concluded Huckleberry Finn (1885) with these words from Huck: “. . . so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

Some would say that to attempt to continue Twain’s finest novel in the voice of Huckleberry Finn would be foolhardy. Few have tried with little success. Coover has now accomplished it and more. Any comparison that is made between the two novels must include the fact that Coover pays homage to both Twain and Huck by allowing Huck to tell his story in the voice his creator invented for him and by exploring the humanity of the character that Twain himself revered. Coover’s novel is a corrective to the wrongheaded argument that Huckleberry Finn is racist. His novel, side-by-side with Twain’s, is a lesson in how to read, explained in another of Coover’s meditations about fiction: “Because truth, that elusive joker, hides himself in fictions and must therefore be sought there.”

Huck and Tom team up out West as Pony Express riders. But Tom, who revels in hangings, particularly of Indians, returns home to “sivilization,” saying to Huck, “I learnt something here, Huck, about the law and how it makes some folks poor and some folks powerful rich and famous. I want me some a that power, Huck.” And he returns home to study law under Becky Thatcher’s father and begin a family with Becky, while Huck embarks on further adventures far from “sivilization.” The West that is Coover’s palette is the truly wild territory that existed from the Civil War years to 1876, the year of General George Armstrong Custer’s last stand at Little Bighorn. In this novel, Custer is caricatured as a colonel known to his troops as General Hard-Ass, who delights in the massacre of Indians and — after Huck leaves the army’s employ as a hired civilian wrangler upon refusing to destroy tethered Indian mounts — a fanatical pursuer of Huck throughout the West.

Huck finds a friend in a Lakota tribesman by the name of Eeteh (“Falls-on-His-Face”), who saves Huck’s life by sucking deadly snake venom from his leg. They develop a deep bond in that, as Huck says, Eeteh has “a general dispreciation of the harsh ways of his tribe which, to hear Eeteh tell it, was nigh as ugly as the sivilization I’d lit out from.” Huck’s dialect — which is so well done by Coover that his reader begins to think in its rhythms and intentions — reminds readers that civility has been eliminated from the tribes to which both he and Eeteh have belonged. For their own amusement, Eeteh’s tribal community saddles Huck with a Crow woman with “no nose” — describing her countenance following the punishment the Lakota often carried out for unfaithful women. Then the tribe offers him a wild horse that they wrongly believe will break him before he can break it. After the Crow woman leaves and Huck bonds with the horse, Eeteh, who “was having about the same kind of trouble with his tribe as I was having with mine,” takes him to where a “Great Spirit” exists, the still of “an old hermit whisky-maker” located in the Gulch. The Gulch is a decrepit but relatively idyllic pioneer encampment before it soon becomes the center of the area’s gold rush and the greed and violence that goes with such places. Huck and Eeteh find a bat-inhabited cave above the Gulch to which they can find momentary peace from “sivilization.”

Huck’s tale does not move linearly. He tells us that after his wrangler experience, he met up with his dear old friend Jim. Tom had sold Jim back into slavery, blaming it on Huck, before he and Huck began riding for the Pony Express. But Jim had been “bought” and then freed by “the reverend and his missus” who “led him to Jesus, because that was what the reverend done for a living.” Jim became a cook for their wagon train of white evangelical missionaries headed West. After the War he stayed with the wagon train in hopes of finding his wife and children. Jim and Huck’s bond is still strong, but for the fact that Jim has “found Jesus,” an experience out of “sivilization” that Huck would not have had, because, as he says, “I warn’t looking for him . . .”

Tom has become an icon of the “sivilization” that Huck has desperately tried to escape. He reenters the novel wearing a white cowboy hat, sits astride a white horse, and gallops into the Gulch at the moment Huck is being hanged for a crime he did not commit. Tom shoots through the rope as Huck falls through the trap door of the gallows. To Tom, Huck is still the same clueless sidekick that he always was, his jester that can be counted on for his loyalty. Tom is intent on bringing “sivilization” to the Gulch and the surrounding Territory by means of law and order and justice to be determined by him and him alone. He is a bully, the essential ingredient of a dictator, and the miners and hangers-on come to adulate him.

As the novel draws to a close, Tom and a posse find Eeteh and Huck beginning a journey south toward a wall-less border. He threatens Huck with hanging for having disturbed the peace in the Gulch, but forgives him as his “pard,” imploring him to stay on. He has resolved to build a twenty-two-room mansion on a hillside overlooking the Gulch, a site from which he can survey his domain, and he wants Huck to move in with him. But Huck is determined to go off with Eeteh, his new “pard.” Tom figures that he may have to give the mansion to Becky Thatcher, his estranged wife, to house her bordello. Becky has joined the oldest profession, the most profitable profession for women in the Territory. Tom will build a new mansion next door should that happen. Huck and Eeteh mosey off away from “sivilization,” entertaining one another with mythical stories drawn from the natural world. Huck concludes his story by saying, “Best to make camp . . . and muddytate on Coyote’s misfortunes over the last of Shadrack’s whisky, and my pard yayed that.”

If Tom’s bullying and Huck’s determination to escape it reminds the reader of the political scene today, it is not by accident. Tom LeClair, a long-time advocate of Coover’s work for both readers and writers, recently wrote a salient essay titled “Robert Coover’s ’70s Novel ‘The Public Burning’ Eerily Anticipates Trump,” (The Daily Beast, January 6, 2017). He emphasizes Coover’s prescience in detecting the damage to the nation’s moral fiber that clownish dictatorial leaders and their entertainment-craving acolytes can wreak. The ridiculous voice in that novel is Vice President Richard Nixon’s, who attends the fantastical 1953 public burning of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in Times Square with the dark presence of a fiendish Uncle Sam hovering over the scene.

Prior to The Public Burning, Coover wrote a novella titled The Cat in the Hat for President — published in The American Review in 1968 and revised and retitled as A Political Fable (1980). It is a send-up of political convention tactics and antics and the electorate to which politicians appeal, making it difficult ever after for the reader to observe political maneuverings without thinking of this novella and its conclusion, when the Cat in the Hat is crucified, roasted, and eaten by the electorate.

As Twain critic Ron Powers concludes in his review of Huck Out West, “Who Would Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Grow Up To Be?” (New York Times Book Review, January 20, 2017), Coover’s pen is “hell-hot.” His works are not for the faint of heart or for those who refuse to believe that the works of a perceptive of fiction can reveal the truth about what we are and have been. In three salient meditations, Coover further justifies why he writes: “Because fiction is the best position, at once exotic and familiar, for fucking the world”; “Because, in its profanity, fiction sanctifies life”; and “Because truth, that elusive joker, hides himself in fictions and must therefore be sought there.”

 

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Robert Coover is Professor Emeritus of Literary Arts at Brown University, where he helped to create the International Writers Project for censored and endangered writers, and the hypertext fiction and Cave-writing (virtual reality) workshops. Since receiving the Faulkner Award for best first novel of the year with the publication of The Origin of the Brunists in 1966, Coover has come to be recognized as one of the nation’s most innovative writers. FWJ has published an interview with Coover and has reviewed his two most recent novels, The Brunist Day of Wrath and now Huck Out West.  His short fiction appears regularly in The New YorkerViceGranta, HarpersConjunctions, and others.

 

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James Ballowe, Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus, Bradley University, is an award-winning essayist and poet, a biographer, interviewer, and a founding editor of  Fifth Wednesday Journal.  He also served on the editorial board of Accent: A Quarterly of New Literature.  He and Robert Coover have been “pards” in the manner of Huck and Eeteh for over seventy years.

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