HUCK OUT WEST
By Robert Coover
Norton, $26.95, 308 pages
It's hard to imagine a gutsier move by a novelist than to take up where Mark Twain left off. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is about as seminal a work of fiction as we have in our literary history. Of it, Ernest Hemingway said, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."
At the end of Twain's book, Huck says, "But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Polly's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before." Ever since the Twain book appeared in 1885, readers, critics and countless legions of students have speculated on where Huck went and what he did.
Not content with speculating, the much-admired 85-year-old American novelist Robert Coover ("The Brunists," and "The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop." plus nine others) artfully takes on the task. Mr. Coover, who specializes in retelling this nation's tale tales, is a fabulist who often employs magical realism, and these traits abound in "Huck Out West."
The novel takes place in the last quarter of the 19th century, the period of American westward migration that bragged of Manifest Destiny and included the gold rush of 1876. This era has been mythologized as one of the great points in American history, but not in the mind of Robert Coover (or in the words and attitudes he gives Huck Finn).
According to "Huck Out West," both Huck and his friend-and-idol Tom Sawyer did head west from Missouri, working for several years as riders for the Pony Express. Then their paths diverged when Tom Sawyer, always practical despite his fascination with "adventures," goes back home, marries Becky Thatcher, and studies law in the office of her father, the judge. This leaves Huck on his own, doing whatever work he can find, but, characteristically, getting himself into scrapes, with escalating degrees of danger.
"When [Tom] left, I carried on like before, hiring myself out to whosoever, because I didn't know what else to do, but I was dreadful lonely. I wrangled horses, rode shotgun on coaches and wagon trains, murdered some buffalos, worked with one or t'other army, fought some Indian wars, shooting and getting shot at, and didn't think too much of it. I reckoned if I could earn some money, I could try to buy Jim's freedom back, but I warn't never nothing but stone broke." Huck tells us he misses Tom Sawyer, but now, as an adult, while still fiercely loyal, he's far more clear-eyed in his assessment of him.
As the book opens, Huck is on the run from a general for whom he'd been working as a civilian scout, but whose order Huck had refused to obey. "The general had trusted me and I had let him down. I won't say it was the shamefullest mistake I ever made, I made so many there ain't no smart way to rank them, but it's clean at the top for the troublesomest. When I done it, I set myself up for ducking and running, and what was worst, was probably a mistake I couldn't stop making. Can't you never learn nothing Huck? Tom would say. The years rolling past just seemed to pile on more stupidness."
Like Twain before him, Mr. Coover employs colloquial speech and spelling. For the most part, this - and the use of malapropisms - is effective, but a little bit goes a long way, and in "Huck Out West" there's quite a lot of it.
It's great fun to see the plot, which has a way of looping in and out and then doubling back on itself, unroll, so I won't reveal too much of it. But it's safe to report that the adult Huck, despite his penchant for getting into jams, is still warm and compassionate. And he really loves his horse, Jackson, at one point stating, "Him and me was two of a kind back then. Sometimes, we just laid down together in a lonely place and moped together."
Also like Mark Twain, Robert Coover can make readers laugh; he describes one character as having "a row of gold teeth like he was doing his banking there." And he has great fun satirizing the wave of humanity flooding westward, the religious leaders and their motley followers, the gamblers, prostitutes, snake oil salesmen, and a wide variety of crooks and con men. It's definitely not the picture one sees in early history books.
"Huck Out West" is a great circus of a novel, and its author a great ringmaster.
• John Greenya is a Washington writer and critic.