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Giving new life to classic characters

Special to The Times

FROM his first adolescent encounter with Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Jon Clinch says he has been haunted by the scene in which Huck and Jim find the corpse of Huck’s father on the Mississippi River. All his life, Twain’s “image of the floating house” and “the dead man, lying face down with a bullet in his back” stayed with this 52-year-old former high school English teacher and advertising agency owner.

Twain left Pap Finn surrounded by “old greasy cards,” “old whisky bottles,” black cloth masks, men’s and women’s clothing, a boy’s straw hat, and (in Huck’s colorful narration) “all over the walls, the ignorantest kind of words and pictures.” To Clinch, the effect was “so peculiar, so horrifying, so bizarre, it was almost like a scene from a thriller or a slasher movie.”

Scholars, he says, have generally identified the setting as a brothel. “But what if it’s not?” Clinch asked himself. “What if all these peculiar things are clues that Twain left for telling us the true secret history of this man?”

That question was the inspiration for “Finn,” Clinch’s debut novel, which he wrote on his kitchen table in a five-month “fever dream.” The book, Random House’s lead title for spring, is a terrifying tale of two murders, which climax two artfully linked narratives.

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Written in a style that Clinch says deliberately echoes the King James Bible and William Faulkner (and incorporating a slave ship vignette from Herman Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno”), “Finn” offers a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a sociopath, as well as an audacious reinterpretation of Twain’s masterpiece.

The critical reception has been mostly rapturous. “Clinch re-imagines Finn in a strikingly original way, replacing Huck’s voice with his own magisterial vision,” Ron Charles wrote in the Washington Post. The Times’ reviewer, Steve Almond, was more restrained, describing “Finn” as “dark and often gripping, though marred by stylistic excess and a shortage of pathos.”

Will Murphy, Clinch’s editor at Random House, who won the manuscript at auction for a mid-six-figure advance, lauds the novel’s ambition. Clinch uses “a vaguely menacing, violent, alcoholic, racist character,” Murphy says, “to address all of the dark undercurrents in Twain’s America: racism, violence, paternity.”

“Finn” is the latest example of a burgeoning -- and commercially successful -- literary genre: works that appropriate minor characters from major fiction or drama and award them starring roles.

While drawing on classics is a venerable tradition, Jean Rhys took a revolutionary leap in “Wide Sargosso Sea,” her 1966 retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” from the perspective of Mr. Rochester’s mad Creole wife. In Tom Stoppard’s 1967 drama “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead,” the playwright reinvented “Hamlet” as the adventures of two doomed Danish courtiers. “Grendel,” John Gardner’s 1971 novella, gave voice to the monster of the medieval epic “Beowulf” -- and was particularly important to Clinch, two of whose short stories were published by Gardner in the literary journal MSS.

Under U.S. copyright law, books published before 1923 are in the public domain. But borrowing from more recent works still under copyright can be legally problematic. In 1999, Martin Garbus, a New York attorney whose clients have included Lenny Bruce, Alger Hiss and Lauren Bacall, successfully fought attempts by Vladimir Nabokov’s estate to block publication of Pia Pera’s “Lo’s Diary,” a retelling of “Lolita” (1955) from the nymphet’s point of view. But two years later, when the estate of Margaret Mitchell tried to scuttle Alice Randall’s “The Wind Done Gone,” a reinterpretation of “Gone with the Wind” (1936) from a slave perspective, Garbus switched sides, representing the estate. A federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling and allowed publication.

In these cases, pitting 1st Amendment concerns against intellectual property rights, Garbus says his positions were not inconsistent. “The question is, ‘What is the extent of the creativity?’ ” he says, but he concedes that the standard is a subjective one.

For reasons both legal and historical, 19th century American fiction has seemed especially ripe for revision. The trend may represent a delayed reaction to the “new social history” of the 1970s, in which women, minorities and working people emerged from the background to assume bigger speaking parts.

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“Finn” was preceded by Nancy Rawles’ “My Jim: A Novel” (2005), which focused on the runaway slave Jim’s wife, Sadie. Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “March” (2005) follows the absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s young adult classic “Little Women,” a Civil War chaplain who (in Brooks’ version) confronts both battlefield horrors and a formidable slave woman. Sena Jeter Naslund’s “Ahab’s Wife, or, the Star-Gazer” (1999), spins a feminist tale about a feisty young woman every bit Ahab’s equal, or better.

In 1993, Naslund listened to an audio version of “Moby-Dick,” an old favorite, with her 11-year-old daughter, Flora. Though pleased when Flora started reciting Ahab’s speeches, Naslund, who already admired the influential Rhys novella, “thought it was too bad there was no great woman character in ‘Moby-Dick’ with whom she might identify.”

Beginning with the image of a woman on a roof walk staring vainly out to sea for her seafaring husband, and an opening sentence, “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” Naslund, 64, set out to write what she calls a “companion novel” to the Melville original. Instead of depicting a bad marriage, she says, “I wanted to put a person in the landscape who had just as much spiritual depth, angst, courage and trauma to overcome as Ahab had had.”

There are only a few references to Ahab’s wife in “Moby-Dick,” but Naslund was determined to be true to those “facts,” including the age difference between husband and wife and the timing of Ahab’s voyages. “In a companion novel, you have to treat facts as elements of form, and stick to them,” says Naslund, who is writer-in-residence at the University of Louisville and author, most recently, of “Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette.”

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“Ahab’s Wife,” in turn, inspired Brooks. So, too, did the “blood-drenched” battlefields of Virginia where this former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent found herself living with her “Civil War bore” of a husband, Tony Horwitz, author of “Confederates in the Attic” (1998).

What stuck with the Australian-born Brooks, 50, from her childhood reading of “Little Women” was the last scene, in which Mr. March tells his daughters how they have altered in his absence.

“I wondered when one of them was going to ask how he’s changed. He’s the one who’s been to war,” says Brooks. “A man like that -- an idealistic Northerner, an abolitionist -- would have had a very interesting war.”

“I was really thrilled to see her win the Pulitzer,” says Clinch, “because she’s playing the same game that I’m playing -- and playing it with the same seriousness.” Clinch, who has five unpublished novels to his credit, admits it took hubris to follow in Twain’s footsteps. “Hemingway says all American literature comes from ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ Well, this book does too, I guess,” he quips. “So, that’s good.”

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Clinch, whose lone “B” at Syracuse University came in creative writing, uses scenes and characters from Twain but also gives Pap Finn a past. The author describes Finn’s dysfunctional relationship with his own forbiddingly stern father, his descent into alcoholism, and his involvement in interracial romances that mingle tenderness with brutality.

As he was writing, Clinch says, he encountered Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s 1993 literary study, “Was Huck Black?: Mark Twain and African-American Voices,” whose subject is African American influences on Huck’s speech.

“In a sense,” says Clinch, “I took that idea and really made it physical.” That wasn’t the only liberty he took. Reinterpreting Huck as an unreliable narrator, Clinch alters episodes from Twain to make his Finn -- whose first name we never learn -- even more violent.

Still, most critics have found Pap Finn oddly appealing, to Clinch’s delight. “I love Finn. I do,” he says. “My daughter summed it up pretty well. She said, ‘For all his faults and ugliness, he’s always the smartest guy in the room.’ ”

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“Finn” is “really a novel about fathers and sons,” whose message comes in its final sentence, Clinch says. “When Huck finds the dead body, he will take what he requires and light out. To me, that’s the whole thing about fathers and sons: You take what you require and you light out.” So, too, with classics, and the writers who reinvent them.


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