Relax, Nothing is Sacred Anymore
I recently finished reading the novel, Finn, by Jon Clinch, and truly enjoyed Clinch’s take on Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And let me say that I don’t know what all the nonsense about messing with a classic is all about. Clinch admits that a famous novelist had warned him that if he insisted on writing Finn, he ought to be constantly on his guard. “Mr. Clemens, (Mark Twain, for those of you literary challenged.) will be looking over your shoulder.”
What kind of crap is that? I’ve never heard such bunk before. The last time I checked, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was still intact. You know, the part where freedom of speech cannot be infringed upon. Not a purist by any means, I believe that anything goes. Why not? This is fictive literature, an homage, if you will, and not a scientific, legal, or moral debate. In addition, that said, why is it always implied by literati purists that if you “tamper with”, or in this case, revise a classic work of literature, it is plagiarism. If that’s the case, my own novel, which includes a revision of many classic literary works, (and I’ll say no more about it) is the biggest form of plagiarism known to mankind.
I believe that Finn, stands alone as a classic work of literature and that it enhances, broadens, and illuminates, Twain’s own classic work, Huckleberry Finn. What’s the problem with that? If purists want to point fingers and challenge today’s authors with counts bordering on plagiarism, let them take it up with Cormac McCarthy for starters. One of his own first novels, Blood Meridian, to be exact, includes revisions of Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, and John Milton’s, Paradise Lost, and what the heck let's throw in Paolo Coelho's The Alchemist, as a rip-off, uh excuse me, a revision of One Thousand and One Nights. So what? Who really cares? And BTW, this observation comes from a better learned scholar than me, by the name of Professor Hungerford at the prestigious Yale University. Take it up with her. She teaches this sort of stuff. (I know, I know, Yale has to come up with something worth paying for. May as well be this.)
Let’s keep things in perspective folks. There’s not one work of fiction that hasn’t been revised to an extent or one form or another. You want to look for original ideas in literature, real literature, that is, start with the KJV of the Bible, which has been revised by authors since the beginning of time. Ancient Greek Mythology anyone? Aristotle? Shakespeare? Beyond that, everything else has been bastardized and revised to death, just the same. You want the ultimate as an example of revisionist literature? (Lyrics--yes, musical literature.) In the music industry it’s known as “sampling” and just about everyone that has a hit tune these days, owes a debt of gratitude to their predecessors in the industry. They know a good hook when they hear one and you better believe they’re going to use it. Sometimes, without permission.
Both, Simon and Garfunkle, (Turn, Turn, Turn) as well as Earnest Hemingway, (the title, The Sun Also Rises) owe The Preacher Man who penned the Book of Ecclesiastes, as well as so many other authors, for sure.
The same goes for literary fiction. The list is ongoing and endless here folks. That’s life in the big city, as I like to say. Nothing is sacred. Not even the Bible, which should be, but is never safe either.
All this brings me to another example of revisionist literature, before I continue my review of Finn, if I may indulge you in another of my passions in life, screenplays. In the film industry, the proverbial list can go on forever too, but let me narrow this down to two of my favorite movies.
The first is Taxi Driver. For those young guns not familiar with this movie, it’s a must-see 1976 classic, directed by Martin Scorsese, about a taxi driver (Robert DeNiro) who tries saving a prostitute (Jodie Foster) from the grips of her abusive pimp, (Harvey Keitel, of Pulp Fiction fame).
The 1993 revision of this film, Mad Dog and Glory, is produced by none other than Scorsese himself, although directed by John McNaughton this time around. In this modern version of the old classic, DeNiro stars as the same lonesome fellow who tries to save a bartender/call girl (Uma Thurman- Pulp Fiction) from the grips of her boss, a mobster, smartly played by Bill Murray. If this (right down to its melancholic saxophone riffs, whenever DeNiro is on screen) doesn’t ring like the original, nothing does, and it is revision at its best. The difference here is that DeNiro’s character is a sensible, demure, law-abiding crime scene investigator, as opposed to his manic, suicidal character in Taxi Driver. The themes in both these films are almost identical, although the feel in “Mad Dog”, is not quite as dark as Taxi Driver, but nonetheless, the ominous overtones are still evident beneath the surface.
DeNiro was first offered the part of the mobster boss, but he turned it down for the conflicted, insecure character, which I think he pulls off nicely. Although, like most DeNiro fans, I’d much rather see him play the role of a bad guy, as in Heat, opposite Al Pacino, which I think (in addition to Cape Fear) is his best role ever. Besides, I have a hard time watching DeNiro get his freak on. It always comes off awkward and rehearsed, which leads me to believe that it’s not an act since I’ve noticed this so many times before. Unless he’s just uncomfortable filming these kinds of scenes, which is most likely the case. DeNiro is quite a self-conscious character, especially during interviews. Check him out on Charlie Rose, discussing the movie, The Good Shepherd. (Angelina Jolie and other stars of the movie are also part of the interview. http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/83) This is vintage DeNiro, and quite priceless. Very uncomfortable and inarticulate, which is why roles like Wayne, in Mad Dog and Glory, don’t seem like such a stretch for him.
Okay folks, as usual, I’ve digressed from the real purpose of this Post, which is to review the novel, Finn. So if you can find it within the untamed spaces of your heart, please forgive my non sequitur.
Jon Clinch has been hailed by reviewers and critics as the next William Faulkner, or Cormac McCarthy. If not a stretch, then not a bad comparison, if you can get it. I tend to disagree to an extent. Although, I’ll also add that Clinch has a unique voice, all his own and stands on his own merits as a talented, engaging writer, and that any comparisons to either of these aforementioned writers, borders on wishful thinking from the elite literati community for the emergence of a 21st century gifted writer. Not to take anything away from Clinch, mind you. The point is, he is his own writer and better served without the comparisons.
Where does one begin to comment on a novel like this? There’s so much to say and so many places to go with it. So, true to form, I’ll not state the obvious.
Jon Clinch says he wrote this novel in the space of 5 months. Now, most of you are already crying bloody murder. How is that possible? Again, ask Cormac McCarthy who penned his novel, The Road in only two weeks. (Can anyone type that fast?) Two what? He was merely taking dictation folks. Or his secretary was, at any rate. Which is to say that sometimes, writers work out everything about a novel in their heads first, and then simply write down the events as they see them transpiring in their minds eye. Plots have long ago been plotted, dialogue has been churning in their minds for years, and the story hook came about from a dream, or their subconscious. It’s just that simple, and that handily explains why these writers “wrote” in record time. Makes sense to me. I think we can all relate to an extent.
In this novel, however, by far, the most engaging character (and there are many) is Finn, the father, as should be expected and he does not disappoint, but rather, shocks and disturbs. The boy, who is initially referred to as Finn and later as Huck, a matter of some confusion from the start since Finn’s plot is by no means a linear one and things can get a little off balance in the readers mind, trying to keep track of time frames and the characters that are referenced within them. Nevertheless, this sort of plotting keeps you on your tiptoes and sometimes, even gets on your nerves, but this reader always tends to take the blame and chalk it up to his poor focus as opposed to the author’s poor plotting. Whatever the case may be, Clinch’s, use of this literary technique works, albeit with some distraction. Yet, this is the kind of thing that makes you want to read the book twice to make sure you “get it” the second time around.
Clinch also manages to create a narrator that to my ear, reminds me of a dark, authorial, Wilford Brimley (the oatmeal guy). That’s the voice in my head, just as much as Finn reminds me of a sinister Jed from The Beverly Hillbillies. Go figure. Either way, it works for me.
I think the most unexpected thing about this novel, for this reader, was the gratuitous violence from Finn himself, which does fit his character as interpreted and envisioned from Twain’s story nonetheless, as Clinch aptly, re-imagines his protagonist as a murderous alcoholic and sets him off in a most peculiar underworld. An underbelly, which begs revisiting, despite its brutal and disturbing nature. Huck’s voice also rings true to character as Clinch manages to win our sympathies for this lost boy, right from the start. Anyone who has a child would be heartbroken by this dark story of depravation and abuse by such a conflicted and dangerous father as Finn. More than anything else, this alone propelled me into the story and anchored me to the boy’s plight for love, and at the same time, freedom from his unpredictable, alcoholic father.
The manner, in which Jon Clinch pieces together this daring, new tale from the past, and keeps it in the past, is masterful, engaging, and credible. I was hooked from the first sentence, not only because of the disturbing imagery, but because of the voice that carried the narration with such detachment.
Finn, is a great modern classic tale, steeped in literary traditions that I suspect most women readers will shy away from, however, I think they’re missing a relevant and meaningful message about love and humanity that this story has to offer both genders alike.
Clinch’s voice and style is closer to McCarthy’s than Faulkner’s and in many ways, just as interesting, as he narrates with an insightful and omniscient feel that permeates every page with a most revealing and humanistic sensitivity to its characters and their circumstances. A refreshing voice you’ll want to read again and again.
If there is a moral to this story, and there always is, or should be, it is an old saying from the Barrio.
“What goes around, comes around.”
Be careful whom you cross.
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Who Said Whaaat?
BTW, in a recent interview, Paolo Coelho said that he hates when people ask him about the message his stories embody. (Coelho, paraphrasing) "If I wanted to write a message, I would write a statement, not a novel."
Nice soundbite Coelho. Hemingway and others would agree with Coelho, but let me say that the best written novels, the most remembered, always had a message, otherwise known, as a Premise. It's what the book ends with and why it was written to begin with.
The reason these authors like to deny their stories have a message is because it takes away from the literary aspect of their work and "reduces" them to mere commercial panderers for the sake of a sale. Plus, I suspect that they don't begin writing with a message in mind, but nevertheless, subconsiously end up with one.
Let's face it, what would the story The Old man and the Sea, be like if the old man came ashore with a huge fish strapped to the side of his boat in one beautiful piece? Or what would we think of To Kill a Mockingbird, if we never met Boo Radley at the end of the story? How about if John Grady Cole's partner never returned with his horse in All the Pretty Horses?
Uhhaah, I rest my case.
(That's Pacino's "Uhhaah" in Scent of a Woman.)