For the first two-thirds of its running time, Robert Coover’s new Huck Out West can only be called a perfect novel, which is why it came close to being the first book of the year to score a perfect 10 here at CCLaP. Or to be more specific, it succeeds perfectly at what it’s aiming to do, which is to read and feel like a long-lost new chapter in the Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn saga by Mark Twain, which to remind you consists not only of the original two volumes of “Adventures” themselves, but also two largely forgotten sequels that Twain himself wrote in his elderly years, 1894’s Tom Sawyer Abroad (a parody of Jules Verne’s fantastical novels) and 1896’s Tom Sawyer, Detective (in which Sawyer serves as a Matlock-style combination PI and lawyer, to both defend his uncle when unfairly accused of murder and to figure out who the real killer is).
It’s surprisingly difficult to write a contemporary novel in the spirit of Twain’s originals, as the hundreds of unread, mediocre attempts filling the dusty back shelves of your local library attest. (With these characters now being in the public domain, much like Sherlock Holmes, there is now a veritable cottage industry of “unauthorized Twain sequels” that now exist.)
But if anyone can do it, it would be the now 85-year-old (!) Coover, an obscure but revered figure in the literary world; alum of the University of Chicago during its Mid-Century Modernist artistic height (the same years Saul Bellow and Philip Roth were there), former teacher at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and famed contributor to such countercultural lit mags as The Evergreen Review, Coover has made a long career out of clever pastiches and boldly experimental works, along the way racking up everything from an NEA Grant to a Guggenheim Fellowship to a National Book Award nomination.
It’s this pedigree that allows Coover to get Huck Out West so exactly right in tone for the vast majority of its length; not too treacly yet not too mean, funny and irreverent yet with a subtle political agenda running underneath it all, with a delightful relationship with wordplay but never letting that get in the way of telling the story itself. It’s a subtle and difficult balance that even Twain himself didn’t get right until his 1884 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is why it wasn’t until then that he started getting called the “first grand master of the true American literary arts.” (His earlier Adventures of Tom Sawyer, from 1876 nearer the beginning of his career, is more a straightforward tale of childhood nostalgia for an idealized frontier that never actually existed, well-written but not containing that dark political edge that made his later work so admired and famous.)
And Coover nails it perfectly for the first two-thirds of Huck Out West, setting his own book in the eventful years between the end of the Civil War (1865) and the US Centennial (1876), taking our now twentysomething heroes and depositing them in the middle of “The Territories” (present-day North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, etc); where Huck in particular becomes a sort of Victorian-Age Forrest Gump, in which among other things he serves as a rider for the Pony Express, becomes an honorary member of the Lakota tribe, almost joins up with the Jesse James gang, briefly acts as an Indian scout for a psychopathic George Custer, and is around to witness the gold rush that leads to the formation of the infamous “Wild West” town of Deadwood.
In a way, then, it’s a real shame that Coover finally gets this balance wrong in the last third of the novel, and like many contemporary authors starts tilting too far into 1970s-Postmodernist-style politically-correct “shocking for shock’s sake” historical revisionism: by the end of Huck Out West, Tom Sawyer has turned into a racist, wife-beating, crooked-sheriff villain, his estranged wife Becky Thatcher has become a mining-town prostitute to make ends meet, huge chunks of pages are devoted to Native American mythology tales, and the establishment of Deadwood becomes an unending daily horror show of torture and violence worthy of a Cormac McCarthy tale.
I mean, I like Cormac McCarthy, don’t get me wrong, but I like him precisely because his revisionist Westerns are very explicitly meant to be revisionist, and not even for a moment are you expected to believe that a book like Blood Meridian had actually been written back in the 1800s; but with Cooper’s goal here being to trick us into believing that this is a long-lost novel by Twain himself, and largely succeeding in that for the majority of the book’s length, that makes it disappointing when he veers into Dances With Wolves territory at the very end.
In another way, though, it’s pretty astonishing that the first two-thirds of Huck Out West came out as well as it did, especially considering that most people Coover’s age now spend their time watching 16 hours a day of Fox News and screaming about how The Muslims Are Coming To Convert Your Children And Take Your Job. If this is the last book that Coover will ever write — and let’s face it, it might very well be — then it’s a fine capper to a long and fascinating career, with the remarkable thing being not that he got the tone a bit wrong at the end but that he got it so right during all the rest. Although not perfect, it still comes very strongly recommended today, a great example of an author getting the concept of “pastiche” exactly right, and a true reading delight for any fan of Twain’s original books on the same subjects.
Out of 10: 9.8