HUCK OUT WEST, by Robert Coover. W.W. Norton & Co., 308 pp., $26.95.
To borrow the deathless opening line of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”: You can enjoy Robert Coover’s new novel, “Huck Out West,” “without you having to read” Mark Twain’s original masterpiece.
Coover’s speculations on what happened to Huck Finn after he broke free of his Missouri hometown make for a spacious-skies frontier ripsnorter that stands alone as a wildly funny, violently imaginative Western yarn with flamboyant plot turns and caustic humor Twain himself might have appreciated, if not envied.
Bear in mind, however, that this is a Robert Coover novel. And you should know going in that this 84-year-old master of “metafiction” has built a provocative and challenging body of work by tweaking and pretzel-twisting familiar American archetypes with brazen abandon, whether the characters are The Cat in the Hat (running for president in 1980’s “A Political Fable”) or Richard Nixon (in 1977’s “The Public Burning” and 1987’s “Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?”). For someone of Coover’s formidably restive imagination, picking up where “Huckleberry Finn” left off isn’t merely an act of literary homage or showboating impersonation. It’s his means of dragging the nation’s soul in for a rugged and pitiless interrogation.
“Huck Out West” picks up its title character’s story in the mid 1870s, roughly a decade and a half since both Huck and (it turns out) his childhood pal Tom Sawyer decided to “light out for the Territory.” Huck is once again the teller of his own tale through Coover’s droll yet faithful replication of Twain’s first-person narration. Huck doesn’t disclose much about his early days on the frontier beyond some anecdotes from when he and Tom “was still humping mail pouches back and forth across the prairie” with the Pony Express.
You don’t have to read far to determine that of the pair it’s Huck who remains the less ambitious, more compassionate and thus more trouble-prone, while Tom’s youthful penchant for mischief, hyperbole and role-playing grows to sometimes monstrous excess. “Tom is always living in a story he’s read in a book so he knows what happens next, and sometimes it does,” Huck says with typical insight. “For me it ain’t like that. Something happens and then something else happens, and I’m in trouble again.”
Huck is still fortune’s fall guy, drifting to and all over the Dakotas. He becomes, by turns, a horse wrangler for a cattle drive; finds, then loses, gold; falls in with and is then bedeviled by bandits and scouts for the U.S. Cavalry in its war against the Lakota tribe before running afoul of the preening, malevolent paleface scourge he calls “General Hard Ass.” (The long hair and buckskin fringes identify him as none other than George Armstrong Custer.) Huck breaks away from the Cavalry and soon becomes an “ornerary Lakota Sioux,” forging a bond with a loquacious shaman-brave named Eeteh — as mutually supportive as the friendship he’d had as a boy with the runaway slave Jim. Jim’s here, too, by the way, having run off for the territory with Huck and Tom before the latter sold him to a tribe of slaveholding Cherokees. “He’s probably happier when he has someone telling him what to do. And besides, they’re more like his own kind,” Tom says.
That’s Tom — always with a clever rationalization for everything. His loyalty to Huck, whose life he ends up saving more than once later in the story, may be his only redeeming quality. He’s the one who heads back East to “sivilization” early in this chronicle to get a law degree and marry childhood sweetheart Becky Thatcher. We’ll see both of them again later on, though not necessarily together. In fact, some of you may be mightily distressed to find out what happens to our sweet Becky. (Don’t ask any more from us here.)
While Huck often seems at history’s mercy, Tom, with near maniacal fervor, seeks to ride history like a broken stallion, indulging his peculiar fetish for watching mass hangings and bombastically spreading the gospel of Manifest Destiny — which apparently means leaving a trail of blood wherever “wretchid hostiles” are around.
“All this killing, it’s too many for me,” Huck tells Tom. “Stuff!” Tom shoots back. “I don’t know what else humans is GOOD for, Huck! A hundred years from now, you and me’ll both be dead and forgot and people’ll still be killing each other. This is OUR killing time.”
Don’t know about you, but I know which of these guys I’d rather be lighting out with.