While readers can expect to find some disappointment in its pages, Huck Out West also contains enough nuggets of wisdom and Cooverian insight–like gold hidden in the crags of the Black Hills–to keep pages turning late into the night.
Huck Out West (January 2017)
New York: W. W. Norton & Company
“You can call me Father, you can call me Jacob, you can call me Jake. You can call me a dirty son-of-a-bitch, but if you EVER call me Daddy again, I’ll finish this fight.”
Much of my perception of the early American West, for better or worse, is tied up in this iconic scene from Big Jake (1971). That West is about being tough and upstanding, about the good guys overcoming the bad guys. Clean but edgy, it is lined with clear distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil. And, as a result, it doesn’t represent the reality of the Old West in any way whatsoever.
Thankfully, I am not alone in this perception. For many people, visions of the early American West are a collection of interspliced memories of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and History Channel documentaries narrated by the late Edward Herrmann. And while these differing sources give a broad perception of America during its most aggressively expansionist phase, they simply cannot do justice to the ruthless moral relativism that existed on the fringes of that society. Like Conrad’s Kurtz, who finds his Nietzschean superman status at the grey margins of civilization, the Western limits of American authority just after the Civil War brought humanity to the brink of both its full potential and its most abject depravity.
Set in this same period, Robert Coover’s newest novel Huck Out West uses the adult versions of Mark Twain’s classic characters Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer to chart this highly unstable period in American history. Set immediately after the conclusion of Twain’s Adventures of Huck Finn, Coover imagines the duo striking out for the American West, where they work as Pony Express riders, then guides across the wild and rugged landscape. At other times, Huck finds himself caught up in the post war politics of Union army generals hunting Lakota and Sioux Indians, as well as in the midst of the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1874.
In some ways, Coover’s book follows exactly the kind of future readers would expect for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn: vagabonds and troublemakers of the open prairie, each stirring up trouble in his own way. Huck maintains his position as the soft-hearted do-gooder whose desire to do the right thing always ends up causing the worst outcomes, while Tom goes into politics and exercises his infinitely adventurous spirit and newfound knowledge of the law to tame his own corner of Western (pun intended) civilization. Huck continues as the novel’s narrator as well, in the vernacular voice that made him famous, and while that style wears out by the novel’s conclusion, it remains an effective method for conveying the veneer of simplicity Coover spreads over such a complex tale.
Coover’s expansion of the original books doesn’t stop at style. He brings back a number of major characters like Jim and Becky Thatcher, while also making space for minor figures such as Ben Rogers, who once played pirates with Tom and Huck on Jackson’s Island. These characters often lead lives that are less than ideal–or just as often, end in cruel irony–but Coover’s chosen path for each of these memorable literary figures reflects the shadows that consistently underlie their fictional pasts.
In fact, one of the most important of Twain’s themes continued here is that of the persistent, if understated, darkness of Huck’s original adventures. Death, gambling, theft, slavery, murder, abandonment–all of these themes buttress Twain’s storytelling, whether in Injun Joe’s cave or on the Mississippi River. Huck Out West only intensifies these experiences, turning play adventures into those of a deadly-real nature, where fights with pirates, Indians, and robbers are a lived reality resulting in serious and far reaching consequences. In fact, loss is perhaps the strongest of emotions that Huck consistently experiences throughout the novel, as almost everyone who is significant to Huck’s life departs, some willingly, others not so much.
The end result of these weighty shenanigans is an older, more mature Huck Finn who grapples with depression, abandonment issues, and fear of the future in ways that never breach the surface of Twain’s work. Coover extrapolates the scars of Huck’s past in order to draw out profound questions from Huck’s conscience concerning the value of life (and death), the nature and purposes of truth (and falsehood), the limits of human endurance, the depths of greed, and many more. As a result, Huck’s character highlights the myriad issues at the heart of the early American West, all of which go beyond simple gunfights and cattle drives.
While this dark tone is one of the novel’s great strengths, it is also simultaneously, one of its most glaring flaws. Twain’s novels succeed in their ability to code deeper themes amidst the antics of exciting, rip-roaring adventure; choices therein have serious consequences as often as they have unexpectedly happy ones, or no consequences at all. In other words, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn both strike the same balance between romance and seriousness that one sees in Victorian era adventure fiction for boys, such as Stevenson’s Treasure Island or Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. In Huck Out West, Coover misses this mark because every choice Huck makes result in the direst of outcomes. Characters die or disappear like they’re extras in a Game of Thrones episode, and while it is clear that Coover builds this unrelentingly dark tone with great care, the result is a book that rarely returns to the lighthearted source material that it draws upon so heavily.
Huck Out West also struggles with pacing and momentum. While the opening chapter serves as kind of overture for Huck’s backstory–wherein Coover briefly mentions all of the events that brought his main character to the Black Hills–the book’s first half shifts back and forth between past and present in ways that are deeply psychological and sometimes difficult to follow. Furthermore, after this opening scramble, the story falls into a kind of hazy malaise, which gives the novel a listless, indistinct quality, even though it is effectively reflected in Huck’s own character development,. Although the novel’s conclusion is worth pushing through this central section, readers should be prepared for a major slowdown just when it seems that events should begin coming together.
All of these issues individually build to what is my central critique of the work: why Huck? Full disclosure, this review appears almost a month after the novel’s initial release because the more distance I had from reading the book, the more I wondered how much this story actually fits Huck Finn. Readers should not be surprised to find a significant breach between Huck Finn’s character and the historical events of the American West. What I mean is, it feels as though this novel tells a story that doesn’t have to be connected to Huck Finn. It is a story that could have grown from almost any other character, and while interjecting Tom and Jim and Becky into these events does provide another layer of insight into the social and political pressures that dominated the period, I came away from Huck Out West wondering why exactly Coover felt it necessary to superimpose Twain’s character upon this story. And, unfortunately, that is often exactly how these characters feel: superimposed.
Despite these rather significant criticisms, however, Coover has here produced a worthwhile extension of the Huck Finn story, and I would encourage any of those who have ever wondered what Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn might look like as adults to pick up this book and give it their serious attention. While readers can expect to find some disappointment in its pages, Huck Out West also contains enough nuggets of wisdom and Cooverian insight–like gold hidden in the crags of the Black Hills–to keep pages turning late into the night.