Ever wonder what happened after the title character of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn lit out for the Territory at the end of Mark Twain's great American novel?
Robert Coover did, and the result is Huck Out West, which extends its big-hearted hero's story into the decade after the Civil War, as the American frontier sweeps across the continent and he goes with it.
This is the 11th novel by Coover, across a writing career spanning five decades. He captures Huck's voice — the essential element of Twain's novel — with uncanny accuracy, and sets Huck on a path that will take him through a stint with the Pony Express, jobs driving cattle and robbing travelers and guiding pioneers in covered wagons, and habitation in swarming gold-rush towns and nomadic Lakota villages — not to mention close encounters with such historical personages as George Armstrong Custer, like some Wild West version of Zelig.
However, Coover, one of the grand old men of postmodernism, is not writing a rousing adventure yarn, any more than Twain was. Twain's 1885 novel may be mistaken for a children's book by some, but it is in fact a journey to the heart of America's darkness, the story of an innocent abroad in a culture rife with violence, racism and greed.
That's the journey Coover continues as Huck rides the wave of Manifest Destiny, alongside characters from Twain's book, historical figures and mythical creatures like the Native American trickster-god Coyote and "a big dark stallion. ... (that) warn't entirely of this world" that Huck names Ne Tongo — Lakota for Big River.
Coover has couched American history in magic realism before, notably in The Public Burning (1977), in which the real-life Richard Nixon and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg share the pages with mythic figures like Uncle Sam and the Phantom.
In Huck Out West, the real world is so strange that fabulism can be used sparingly. The West is where people go to reinvent themselves, and tall tales are the universal language.
It's a natural home, therefore, for Tom Sawyer. He was bad enough in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a casually cruel narcissist lurking beneath the freckled face of a small-town lad. Here he's an all-out sociopath, albeit in the guise of a cowboy hero.
He and Huck parted ways after their Pony Express days ended, and Tom headed back east to marry Becky Thatcher and go to law school. But he reappears in dramatic fashion in the gold rush town of Deadwood, just as Huck is about to be hanged by vigilantes for a crime of which he's entirely innocent.
Tom comes "galloping in on a high white horse with a passel a friends behind him. He was fitted out in bleached white doeskin and a white hat, with white kid gloves and a red bandanna tied round his throat, gleaming silver spurs on his shiny boots." He rescues Huck by shooting through the rope above the noose.
All that whiteness is not a signal that he's a good guy. He takes over the town as its "federal overmarshal," mayor and governor in short order, based on those speaking skills that he used to get the kids back in Missouri to paint that picket fence for him all those years before.
A sample of his speech: "The United States is a-going to take over this Territory to itself and kick out the blastemous cannibal redskins — who ain't even completely HUMAN!"
Tom is delighted to have found his old pard, but his attitude presents a problem for Huck, who has lived with the Lakota and had a Crow wife, and whose best friend is a Lakota man named Eeteh.
The tender and heroic heart of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, of course, the relationship between Huck and the slave Jim, the only admirable adult in the book and perhaps the most memorable Christ figure in American literature. Jim's story gets a nod in the book, and he and Huck even have a brief reunion, but he doesn't play a significant role.
His closest counterpart is Eeteh, who, like Huck, is ostracized by his tribe for his peculiarities, even though he's the brother of the powerful Lakota war chief Rain in the Face, another historical figure and one of the leaders who will defeat Custer at the Little Big Horn.
Eeteh is kind, loyal and resourceful, but Huck values him most because he's a skilled storyteller, a conduit to Coyote. Found in the mythology of many Native American tribes, Coyote is a trickster god, a lover of pranks but also a storyteller himself, one who uses tall tales and tricks to reveal the truth.
Tom, of course, is a virtuoso storyteller as well. The difference is Coyote knows when he's lying, while Tom always believes himself.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.