Friday, May 12, 2017

FFB Review: FINN (2007) by Jon Clinch --- Reviewed by Barry Ergang

Friday means Friday’s Forgotten Books hosted by Patti Abbott who will have the full list on her blog. Make sure you check it out after you read Barry’s review below.

FINN (2007) by Jon Clinch

Reviewed by Barry Ergang


I’ve read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at least twice, and possibly three times—I’m honestly not certain. I may very well read it again one of these days because it’s a favorite—and because I recently read Jon Clinch’s “prequel” titled Finn, which imagines the life of Huck’s father, whom Huck referred to as “Pap.”

Known only as Finn, the titular figure is the black sheep of his family. His father is one James Manchester Finn, known throughout as “the Judge,” a man whose “own father before him had been a drunk just like his son. The one he hated for it and the other he pities but not enough. Drink he understands, the Judge tells himself, because it is a thing of vast and nearly indomitable power—like the law, like the wilderness, like history itself.”

Among other things, this dark and sometimes brutal novel recounts Finn’s days catching fish which he sells to local merchants and tavern owners in exchange for goods and whisky. More importantly, it recounts his conflicts with his family and some of those merchants, how it came about that Huck was born—and to whom—and how and why Finn spent a year in prison. The reader is also shown moments in the lives of other key characters, some from Twain’s novel, most created for this one.

When I discovered the existence of Finn, I bought a copy because the premise was intriguing. Unfortunately—from my point of view, at least—the execution left a great deal to be desired. The use of the omniscient viewpoint severely diluted characterizations, the author too often telling what characters were thinking and/or feeling, or what they might be thinking and/or feeling, rather than more convincingly showing them in action. 

Paperback Back Cover

I read the Kindle edition, so I don’t know if what I’m about to fault also occurs in the hardcover or paperback versions. In any event, sentences in dialogues which are questions often but not always end with periods rather than question marks. Clinch also shuns em dashes or ellipses in favor of periods in lines which tail off or are interrupted. If this occurs in the physical editions as well, I can only attribute it to a feeble and annoying attempt at artiness. There are also many instances of commas omitted with apparent deliberateness, which I found equally annoying. 

If you take a look at Amazon’s page for the hardcover edition, you’ll find, just beneath the boxes indicating what editions are available, blurbs and excerpts from other authors as well as from reviews in some major newspapers, all praising Finn as a major literary achievement.  “A triumph of successful plotting, convincing characterization and lyrical prose,” declares the Rocky Mountain News. While I’ll concede that there are some beautifully written prose passages throughout, I also think that there are far too many instances of word-drunkenness, self-consciousness—that Clinch got carried away such that in many passages you can practically hear him bellowing, “I’m writing!” Some of that writing struck me as pretentious. 

Several times early into the book, I seriously debated about whether to keep going or quit. I was intrigued just enough to keep going—obviously. But based on that hesitancy, I recommend that prospective readers sample the book before purchasing or borrowing it from libraries. Finn was Jon Clinch’s debut novel. It does not compel me to seek out those which have come afterward.

© 2017 Barry Ergang

Derringer Award-winner Barry Ergang’s impossible crime novelette, “The Play of Light and Shadow,” is available at Amazon and Smashwords, along with some of his other works.


Unknown said...

I felt pretty much the same about this book, which I read when it came out. I was barely able to get through it.

Barry Ergang said...

It took me a few weeks to get through, Bill. I'd put it down and then ignore it for two or three days at a time. It's a slog of a read.

I noticed that one of the review excerpts at Amazon compares Jon Clinch to Cormac McCarthy and Charles Frazier. I've only read one novel by McCarthy and none by Frazier, so I can't say whether the comparisons are accurate. A few passages had me thinking Clinch was trying very hard to emulate William Faulkner. Having read a LOT of Faulkner, I can say emphatically that Clinch didn't succeed.

Rick Robinson said...

Pretty disappointing, because, as you say, the premise sounds great.

Barry Ergang said...

It's a frustrating book, Rick, because it has the potential to be so much better than it is. Clinch's editor at Random House did him a disservice, in my estimation, by not curbing his excesses and pretensions.