Huck Out West: A Novel by Robert Coover (W. W. Norton and Co., 320 pp., $26.95)
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mr. Mark Twain. He made more books about me after that. One was called Tom Sawyer Abroad and the other Tom Sawyer, Detective. They warn’t worth the effort and he knowed it.
Mr. Twain took a whole lot more satisfaction in his other books: The Prince and the Pauper, say, and Puddn’head Wilson, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. But some of them other writers, they couldn’t get enough Huckleberry. So in the next century, they wrote me up their own selves, inventing all sorts of copycat mischief under titles like Finn and I Been There Before. I hoped that might be the end of it.
But no, just when I’m fixing to set back and catch up on my fishing on the Mississippi, here comes Huck Out West by Mr. Robert Coover. He’s writ novels that was interesting but tough, like The Origin of the Brunists, about how religion gets mangled by the folks who believe in it. And The Public Burning, about a real couple called Ethel and Julius Rosenberg that got convicted as spies. Railroaded is the way he seed it. They wound up in the electric chair. This Mr. Coover is one angry man.
Well, here, he’s the ventriloquist and I’m the innocent wanderer again, heading for the mountains like Mr. Twain once did, stumbling into the dark side of the Western Expansion. Some of the old Missouri gang are with me. Trouble is, Mr. Coover, he makes them into folks I don’t hardly recognize. For instance, Jim could break your heart when he talked about how much he loved his wife and children that was sold into slavery. Well, now he’s a tomcat. I mean, we’re having our usual gabble under the stars like we used to done, and I ask if he’d ever been in love.
“Sho. Mos’ all the time.”
“Did you ever get in trouble?”
“Always tried to.”
And that’s nothing compared to what the author done to Tom Sawyer. Now, Tom always did have a ringmaster personality. I have to admit that. He loved to turn everything into a stunt, such as having us sneak into our own funerals after we run off and people thought we drowned. And complicating things something awful when we stole Jim and led him to freedom.
But the thing is, Jim did get away. In Huck Out West, the three of us are on our own, and Tom sells Jim to an Injun tribe, just like that. For a pair of boots. Tom’s excuse: the freed man back in chains is “probably happier when he has someone telling him what to do.” Now that just ain’t Tom Sawyer. That’s a puppet named Tom Sawyer. There’s a difference.
That ain’t all. My old pal Tom becomes the sperrit of Eastern greed, come out West to get rich at the expense of anybody in its way. He marries his childhood sweetheart Becky Thatcher, just like you would expect. But then he abandons her for other temptations. And she winds up in what you might call a pleasure house out Wyoming way.
Meantime, Tom and General Hard Ass, which is a disguise for George Armstrong Custer if I ever saw one, they slaughter Lakota Injuns right and left. Tom tells me he don’t hate the natives at all. But “we’re building something grand out here, ocean to ocean and they’re in the way. Some day, we’ll make statues of them, like they was our own heroes. First, though, we got to kill them all.”
Once upon a Territory that would have been daring. But come on, it don’t take any sand to say, “White man spoke with forked tongue.” Stuff like that has been in Western novel after Western novel and what the movies call oater after oater. I know; I seen them all. Mebbe I’m a nineteenth-century immortal, but I get around. Even that great John Wayne director John Ford, he made a film called Cheyenne Autumn about the sad state of one tribe after they got beat by the U.S. cavalry and their land stole by the U.S. government. And what about Little Big Man? Didn’t it rassle Custer to the ground? Didn’t the book and the picture undo They Died with Their Boots On? Didn’t it kick the romance out of the Boy General? Didn’t they show him as a bully and a fool before he got punctured like Saint Sebastian?
And this don’t include the work of Mr. Mark Twain, who got there first. Here he is on Western Man: “There are many humorous things in the world; among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.” Or, “Man is the only animal that . . . gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and with calm pulse to exterminate his kind.” Or his mocking “War Prayer” about the enemies of our army and navy: “O Lord our God . . . help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst.”
I got a dictionary here by Mr. Noah Webster, tells the meanings of the word “novel.” One is “an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events.” That pretty much describes Mr. Coover’s book. But it’s the second definition that gets it as right as can be: “New and not resembling anything or anyone formerly known or used.” The folks in Huck Out West don’t hardly seem like the originals at all. I should know. I been the real Huck since 1885.