Huck Finn’s tall shadow tints every American novel. Some writers ignore it as best they can. Others offer obeisance when called upon. But few writers will engage the work directly. That is why readers who have loved Huck Finn at any age will want to check out Norman Lock’s The Boy in His Winter. Lock has long been one of our country’s unsung treasures. Now late in his career, he pays unique tribute to a classic.
Be prepared: the novel is neither a retelling nor a sequel. Lock has molded Twain’s material to his own purposes. While Twain offered a panoramic skewering of his time, Lock reimagines the travels of Huck and Jim as a survey of the history and future of America from 1835 through the year 2070. Their raft drifts down the Mississippi and outside of time. The world ages; the travelers do not. After Jim’s murder, Huck travels north along the Intercoastal Highway and across Europe’s middle Rhine. On those waters he learns to live a more common life.
The new Huck is no pranking boy. He is near death—in his winter—and he sounds mature, educated, and worldly. His language creates an immediate, welcome distance between the new and original novels: “Those days did seem like a dream, though not mine, or Jim’s either, but one belonging to someone’s hand I almost felt, prodding me onward in spite of my reluctance.”
That quote’s graceful precision has long been a hallmark of Lock’s writing. It’s needed for this novel, which is full of patiently developed, fascinating observations. They are its most charming parts: “With blunt fingers, Jim undid a knot of worms from the moist secrecy of a dirt-filled tin can and, separating a fat one from its congregation, set it writhing on the hook.” Twain’s energetic Huck had every chance at mischief and adventure. Set adrift and cut off from the world, Lock’s Huck becomes an increasingly passive and poetic observer.
Huck often fixes his lyrical attention on the river: “Let me describe once again the beauties of the way: There were swans toward shore that knotted behind them long threads of brown water, and herons standing on one leg, necks preening in the light or elongating suddenly to spear small fish flashing in the shallows, and pelicans straining at the oars of their wings, and geese that hurtles down from the open air, flailing as they skidded to a stop on the face of the water.” These birds in the old man’s memory are suffused with the boy’s wonder. This Mississippi has the qualities of a dream or myth. There, in the most Twain-like scene, Huck meets on its water a grown-up Confederate Tom Sawyer in the midst of a naval battle. Huck makes Jim play dead, slaps a piece of fatback on him, and eats his pretend-corpse. The sight sickens the blue coats. Our heroes live on. At the turn of the century, Huck meets a dying Tom in Baton Rouge, where we learn Tom knew the gag from the first.
Even outside time—or especially outside time—Huck cannot escape death. Huck increasingly suspects that the prodding hand, quoted above, belongs to the river. He appears free, but is made to witness death after death in the service of morbid destiny. It becomes the subject of his deeper musings. After Tom’s death, Huck asks Jim what they should do next, but he knows that “We were held in the mind of the river, like a thought. The Mississippi knew what we would do next, nothwithstanding the things that kept us busy.”
Jim is in some ways Huck’s mirror. Lock turns him introspective, sometimes bitter and brooding. He speaks beautifully at times: “At night, I think about the origin of stars: how they hurl themselves against the outposts of nothingness. During the day, of the effects of sunlight on fog and water, the secret language of birds and how they turn as one in flight, and how a cloud of gnats reproduces certain nebula in miniature.” In this novel, Jim has the greater imagination, the greater yearning to know what else is possible in this world. Huck can never quite understand his active, yearning mind.
The ride down river affords them the opportunity for such speculative fancies, but Lock does not allow them to remain entirely outside of time. Huck and Jim may not grow older on the raft, but they do grow apart. Huck’s observations turn increasingly sour and, in 1960, Jim gets tired of riding with the kid. He leaves the raft and reenters time. Huck follows to see what happens. The end of lyricism comes hard: All I remember is the noise the rope made while it swung slowly back and forth with Jim’s deadweight at the end of it. Then it began to rain. They didn’t leave him dangling in the tree. They made a joke about sending a package to New Orleans. They cut Jim down and threw him into the river, with a length of rope still around his neck.” The attention is there; the poetry is gone. Throughout the novel, Lock offers a variety of language to suggest the varieties of experience: sometimes poetic, others colloquial, low-down, or scientific. At the deadliest moment we get his flattest prose. It underlines the scene perfectly. Huck has wakened to the nightmare of history.
He doesn’t leave the raft, however, until Hurricane Katrina shatters it. Then he begins to age in the company of drug smugglers. Lock offers some fun here—two of Huck’s new partners are the recast rival brothers from King Lear, Edmund and Edgar—but this is overall the darkest and weakest part of the novel. Huck rejects his name, though he does not reject James, his third partner as well as a new protective incarnation of Jim. Huck is sullen, mean, and preachy. At his misanthropic worst, he sounds like an erudite hippie haranguing shoppers at Wal-Mart. “We may as well come from Mars as from Earth, which we insult like rude and careless strangers.” These passages are necessary to the novel, but they are hard to enjoy.
Huck travels the world and learns the eastern idea of circular time. In Europe he meets Jameson, illustrator of children’s books and Jim’s female incarnation. He believes this has occurred by some kind of “unimaginable transubstantiation.” This belief might put some men off, but for him it adds to Jameson’s allure. He has always needed and often had a Jim nearby. She restores and refocuses Huck’s old pleasure in the world. Once he described the river’s beauty; now Jameson contains “the beauties of the way.” Jameson is often made to stand for both Jim and the river. Some of the comparisons do feel forced, though accurate: “Our marriage was like a journey down an unknown river so uncommonly wide you can’t see the shore.” His description suggests an almost-frozen time together, composed of household routine and companionship. This time, however, they also have real understanding between them.
Her death does not shock him, though it does send him back to Hannibal, where he makes peace with his fate and his name. For a time, he plays the role of Mark Twain at an amusement park. The irony of that role is one of the small charms studding this novel. They complement the larger charms of Huck and Jim. Lock has made them not only fresh but new. Their second lives alone make this novel worth reading.
Marcus Pactor‘s collection of stories, Vs. Death Noises, won the Subito Press Prize. His fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Menacing Hedge, The EEEL, EAT Flash, and Heavy Feather Review.