Thursday, March 23, 2017

Huck Out West, by Robert Coover

W.W. Norton, 2017
308 pp


I knew I had to read this book when I first heard about it in The New Yorker last September during an interview with the author, Robert Coover. In that article, Deborah Treisman asked Coover what inspired him to write Huck Out West -- to which he replied

"Twain was a somewhat racist white boy (he belonged to Confederate militias in the early days of the looming conflict) who was changed for the better by his own writing—another phenomenon that many writers have shared, growing into their own best selves. Twain grew up among African-Americans, mostly slaves, and he learned to love them, but Native Americans were another story—a story he actually began, called “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians.” Very early in his narrative, the savages reveal their irredeemably vicious nature by massacring everybody in sight, and, soon after that, probably because it had in effect dead-ended, Twain abandoned the story. I decided to take up his notion of Huck and Tom heading West just before the American Civil War, seeing the horror of the time through Huck’s eyes, while retaining the feel of “A Boy’s Adventure Story." 
To prepare for this book, I took the time to reread Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and I was amazed how different both books became after reading it as an adult.  One huge thing I missed as a kid reading this  novel,  something which has great bearing on Huck Out West, is that while Huck and Jim are making their way on their raft down the Mississippi, they find that they share a desire for freedom -- Huck is escaping from not only his abusive Pap but also from what he sees as entrapment by civilized society,  while Jim is seeking to find and buy freedom for his family who are slaves.  It's during this journey that the two bond, Huck ultimately coming around to see Jim as the human being he is.

In just the barest of nutshell summaries because I do NOT wish to give anything away, in  Huck Out West, which is narrated by Huck himself, our friend is older now but still trying to avoid the trappings of "sivilization." After a series of adventures that have a certain General Hard Ass (think Custer) out for Huck's head, he ends up "making camp"  in the Black Hills, "sacrid to the Lakotas,"  the "mighty warriors" who "did not like white folks like me...," who make an exception in Huck's case.  He bonds quickly with a young Lakota named Eeteh, since he, according to Huck, "was having about the same kind of trouble with his tribe as I was having with mine." Huck sets out on his horse with his teepee, ending up at Deadwood Gulch
"nigh to cricks too fast and shallow for rafting, but prime for fishing -- there was even a patch of sweetly clovered meadow beside the crick for Tongo to graze on -- I knowed I was at home."
  Huck is happy there, beyond happy --
"there warn't no town, just the Gulch, not no saloons nor churches nor women, nor not no gold, nothing to trouble the peace, only a few hairy old bachelors..."
 -- but he finds his peace shattered by the influx of emigrants who begin to flood into the area as word gets out about gold in the Black Hills. Soon the place is swarming with missionaries, prospectors, opportunists, deserters, drifters, and others who are there to claim their own piece of the American pie in any way they can, and who view the Lakota as  "savages ... ain't even completely human," including his old friend Tom Sawyer, who shows up on the scene.  Huck knows what's coming, having seen it before while working as a horse wrangler for the General, and along with Eeteh,  just wants to get away from  "all this sivilizing" as he had tried to do so many years before. But his hand is forced when he must make a choice between his past and his future.

Where there are some genuinely funny moments in this novel, the story told here by Huck is quite frankly, horrific. As Mr. Coover notes in the New Yorker interview mentioned earlier, it's "Not a pretty history:"
"The story starts at the outbreak of the Civil War and ends with the Deadwood Gold Rush. This era, not the Revolutionary period, was what truly made us who we are. It was an adventurous time, but also one full of greed, virulent hatreds, religious insanity, the slaughter of war and its aftermath, widespread poverty and ignorance, ruthless military and civilian leadership, and huge disparities of wealth." 
There is much, much more to this book (the power of storytelling and myth, what it actually means to grow up, etc.,) but what struck me the most about it  was reinforced later by something I heard after finishing the novel  in an online interview on WNYC (which you absolutely shouldn't listen to until after you've finished the book).   It's all to do with the bonds between Eeteh and Huck that transcend their differences, and the image of the two living the  "possibilities of human-to-human peace and reconciliation,"  just as Jim and Huck managed to do a long time ago while floating down the big river.   What a lovely thought, especially right now.

 I didn't  read this book as just a modern sequel or to spend time comparing it to Twain's original work.  I don't think that's the point and frankly,  it's just a big waste to approach this novel that way. Despite the horrors of the reality found here, it's a gorgeous book and one that needs reading right now.

My favorite real review of this book (but do yourself a favor and don't read it until after reading Huck Out West) is by 

Edwin Turner, Biblioklept, 02/06/2017

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Random House, 2017
343 pp


"Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch." (306)

With apologies for interjecting what some people might consider an f-bomb here, Caitlin PenzeyMoog from The A.V. Club absolutely nails my own experience with this book when she says that Lincoln in the Bardo "will blow your fucking mind."  I don't think I could say it any better.  I loved and was beyond awed by this book, and while it's only March, unless something equally outstanding comes along, this novel just may turn out to be my favorite book of the year.  It is absolutely stunning, and highly deserving of every superlative I can think of.

"The Bardo" is not a place on any map, but in Tibetan Buddhism, is considered to be an "intermediate state," referring to
"the in-between existence experienced during the transitional period from the moment of death to the moment of conception. However, this term has also been used to express all transitional experiences throughout life; for example, the experience of sleeping is an intermediate state between the moments of falling asleep and waking, and even the moment of death itself is considered an intermediate state between life and the after-death experience."
In addition,  "adherents of Tibetan Buddhism consider people always to be in a transitional state between one experience and another," a concept that will become very important as the book progresses. 

To give a brief, simplistic peek at what's happening in this book,   Abraham Lincoln has just lost his young son Willie to typhoid, and he is laid to rest in a borrowed crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery before the Lincolns can return to Illinois for a proper burial.  After the funeral, a severely grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt to spend time with his boy, finding it beyond difficult to leave him. While Willie's body is dead, his soul/spirit  (or however you want to define it) continues on, and he finds himself in the company of countless other  souls who have not yet made the transition.  They are a varied group in terms of who they were before they passed away, a multitude of spirits all with their histories and their own voices that talk to us as this journey progresses. The chief among them are Hans Vollman, The Reverend Everly Thomas, and Roger Bevins III, who have not yet transcended and are waiting for things to be as before (meaning they don't quite understand their situation),  and who serve as our window into what is happening in the cemetery. As a child, though, Willie can't afford to linger -- our guides reveal that he is deteriorating and worse -- for the sake of his soul he absolutely must move on before it is too late. As Bevins reveals, "the young ones were not meant to tarry." 

In a genius move on the author's part, we stay with these spirits and with Willie throughout most of the book, but then he shifts his focus after a time to the President, who is not only paralyzed with grief, unable to make himself leave his son in the crypt, but also stuck in a critical moment.   As we're told, while "young Willie lay under embalmment," the President and citizens learn of the incredible number of casualties
 "from the Union Victory at Fort Donelson ... an event that caused a great a great shock among the public at that time, the cost in life being unprecedented thus far in the war."
As one account notes,
"As the dead piled up in unimaginable numbers and sorrow was added to sorrow, a nation that had known little of sacrifice blamed Lincoln for a dithering mismanagement of the war effort."
He has become to many the worst president in American history; he is hated and reviled; and as he continues to grieve for his son he grieves for the nation; he also wonders how to proceed in the midst of so much sorrow.  Ultimately, it will be his own time spent lingering in the Bardo that will help him to achieve his own transformation that will allow him to move on.  How that comes about I won't say, but the last few chapters of this book will, as the AV Club writer said, blow your ***ing mind.

As always, since I'm just a reader and not a writer, and not someone who knows how to do real reviews,  it's difficult to convey the intensity of this novel in a short post and I can never fully seem to give the best books the justice they're due.  But  Lincoln in the Bardo is a beautiful novel  and Saunders' writing is an experience in itself.   In terms of style, it is not written as one long historical-fiction narrative, but in a format that is itself unique.  In the first chapter, we encounter our first glimpse of the cemetery inhabitants, whose names appear beneath every utterance, so that there are no quotation marks to denote speech. 

Sorry about the crappy blurry photo - I was in a hurry. 

 Then there are alternating chapters of what appear to be contemporary accounts and some from modern histories that provide voices of the time or historical perspective, noted in the same way to give the names of the speaker, the historian, the journalist, the diary writer, etc.   These seem to be a blending of real and fictional works, all done brilliantly.  There is just so much genius, beauty and power to be found in these pages, and in my opinion, some readers might just discover that although the book is set in 1862,  it is also a perfect book for our own time.