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Robert Coover: Huck Out West

Many years ago, I read the two volumes of the Unabridged Mark Twain which covered most of his work. I very much enjoyed it. Mark Twain, is, of course, best known for his Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn novels. There are four completed novels featuring the pair and three incomplete ones. However, when we saw them last they were still more or less children. Robert Coover’s story takes Huckleberry Finn in particular and, to a certain degree, Tom Sawyer well into adulthood.

Coover is a post-modernist so we know full well that he is not going to write a genteel homage to Mark Twain’s pair and, indeed, he does not. Finn does remains the loveable rogue, independent, uncommitted but essentially decent. Tom Sawyer does not come off so well.

Tom disappears relatively early in the book, having decided to marry Becky Thatcher, whom he met and fell for in the Mark Twain books, before reappearing later in the book. However, before that happens, he, Huck and Jim, the runaway slave, who gains his freedom once his owner dies, as she gives him his freedom in her will, all head out West. They struggle a bit but, eventually, Huck and Tom get jobs with the Pony Express, which are, by their standards, very well paid. However, the Pony Express won’t take Jim. Huck was all for looking for another job but Tom decided to sell Jim back into slavery, to a Cherokee Indian tribe. (Tom believed that there are two types of Native Americans (the term is not, of course, used in this book): those that are cannibals and those that respect the white man and try to act just like him, which is why some of them keep slaves and eat with forks, and lots of them is even Christians. Huck will later try to buy back Jim but he has been sold on. Their paths will later cross.

The other criticism against Tom concerns the hanging of 300 Shantee Sioux, following the Dakota War. Tom has heard about it and is very keen to see the hanging. Like many other men, he has a morbid fascination with the idea. He persuades Huck, who is very much opposed, to accompany him to Minnesota. Before they get there, the president (unnamed but we know to be Lincoln) has commuted the sentence on all but thirty-nine. Tom and others are disappointed but still enjoy the spectacle. Huck is disgusted and rides off. He and Tom will now go their separate ways – at least for a while.

Tom was always very keen on his adventures, even in the Mark Twin books, and, in this book, Coover plays with this idea. In Huck’s view, Tom often does things just to write it up in his adventures. In other words, Tom does what he does for posterity while Huck does what he does because he feels that it is the right thing to do at the time. Tom is always living in a story he’s read in a book so he knows what happens next, and sometimes it does, says Huck.

Most of the book, however, is about Huck and his adventures. More than once, he denies having any adventures, unless he is part of Tom’s adventures, but this is patently untrue. Indeed, the book starts with him about to be shot by a prospector, known as Deadwood. They find gold which Huck does not welcome, as gold causes trouble. Prospecting is just of the things Huck gets up to. He works as a wrangler for General (actually Colonel) Custer, a nasty piece of work, hated by both his men and the Native Americans. Huck, who is not opposed to a bit of violence, is horrified when Custer and his men attack a Cheyenne village – the incorrectly named Battle of Washita River – and slaughter everybody. Indeed, Huck flees, knowing that Custer is unlikely to forgive him and will probably hang him if he finds him.

Huck more or less stumbles from job to job or from situation to situation. He works for both sides of the Civil War combatants, not out of any conviction as to who is right – he seems to be at best indifferent and, most likely, unaware of the issues – but is with whoever give him a job and that is usually the Union. However, he becomes friends with the Lakota Indians, a tribe who normally hate white men, and even gets a woman and a horse from them. Indeed, he becomes friends with Eeteh, a sort of Lakota Huckleberry Finn i.e. a rebel, a drunkard and someone who does not confirm to the norms of his society. If we sum Huck up, he is, perhaps, noble, albeit in his own way, though, as he says horses has a noble side and human persons don’t.

We follow him through his dealings with Custer (still never named), with the Lakota tribe, with the Black Hills Gold rush (which he inadvertently starts and from which he does not profit nor want to profit) and with assorted people wandering around the Wild West. He nearly rescues a damsel in distress but it goes wrong. The latter part of the book concerns the gold rush and Custer’s war against the Native Americans, which Huck unwittingly gets involved in and for which Tom makes a dramatic return, still up to his old tricks.

Tom makes up adventures like he reads out a books, though he ain’t scrupulous about the consequences, and he maybe does some things he oughtn’t, but he ain’t really bad inside. Life by itself just ain’t enough for Tom. It ain’t got no point and the way it ends makes him mad. So he contrives up these adventures to get him through it.

This book was written well before Trump was seriously considered as a candidate for the US presidency so it is not clear that the character of Tom – dishonest, lying, exaggerating, racist and sexist – is based on Trump. After all those characteristics are not unique to Donald Trump. However, as I am writing this the day of Trump’s inauguration, I am going to assume that Trump was not out of Coover’s mind, even if not the sole influence, not least because Coover has form when it comes to criticising US presidents.

I have enjoyed all of Coover’s books that I have read and I certainly enjoyed this one. Considering Coover is eighty-four, this is a brilliant effort. Obviously his style – post-modern, iconoclastic, mocking and witty – is not to everyone’s taste. The fact that Tom Sawyer, one of the great heroes of US literature, is shown to be dishonest, lying and scurrilous will, no doubt, not endear Coover to many people. The fact that he also mocks the whole Wild West legend will also not appeal to everyone, even though the demythologising of the Wild West is hardly new. However, for those that like post-modern, humour, iconoclasm and a bit of demythologising, this is another first-class book from Coover.

Publishing history

First published 2017 by W W Norton