“Huck Out West” by Robert Coover, Norton, 308 pages, $26.95
It isn’t supposed to work this way: some of the finest work by formerly committed experimental postmodernists is not supposed to come out of them in their mid-80’s. They’re supposed to be ignorable, unambitious old geezers now lucky to still be stringing sentences together--artists content to sit on an honorable reputations. Stone lions at the zoo, in other words. They’re not supposed to embody authorial chutzpah and exemplifying irresistible panache and wit doing it.
That’s what Robert Coover, at 84, is doing in this which, however early in the year it comes, is certain to be one of the best American fictions of the year. Coover’s major career should, by any career estimate, be in the rearview mirror. Amazing work came early and sprung him progressively farther into the pantheon of his postmodern generation--”The Origin of the Brunists,” “The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh,Prop.” “Pricksongs and Descants,” his Rosenberg novel “The Public Burning.” His past couple of decades have more recondite. Continuing where Twain left off in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has been done before - -by Twain himself too -- and the result has only confirmed how inimitable indeed Twain’s masterpiece remains.
Coover’s book will have none of that. This is one ambitious writer imbibing the genius of another with arresting results. Coover continues Twain’s first-person prose as Huck -- the rhythm and melody and verbal harmonies of it. His book teems with incident and personality and, all through it, is matter-of-factly dark and cruel and deadly as Huck discovers what lies West of the Big River. Tom Sawyer is here but he begins as the sort of man who delights in the merriment of mass hangings. He marries Becky and becomes the sort of opportunist and pol Twain might have boiled in sizzling tobacco spit in his original. Huck becomes a military scout (despite a distate for soldiers) and is absorbed into the Lakota Tribe before the Gold Rush. It’s as readable as Thomas Berger’s now-underrated “Little Big Man”, as if the postmodern master decided to cherish old ambitions by reinventing them completely.