Huck Finn and the River of Time

I’d been itching to read Norman Lock’s The Boy in His Winter: An American Novel since the moment I heard about its premise: Huck Finn and Jim sail down the Mississippi and along time, arriving in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina hits. This synopsis (who knows where or how I absorbed it) isn’t really accurate. Yes, Huck and Jim are on a raft. Yes, the raft passes through the edge of Katrina. But The Boy in His Winter is much more complex in its aspirations.

Rather than offering a quick one-line summary that includes only a small part of the book’s overall narrative, it might be more useful to look at the publisher releasing the book. In this case, the publisher is Bellevue Literary Press (BLP), which bills itself as “the first and only nonprofit press dedicated to literary fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the arts and sciences.” BLP hopes to “promote science literacy in unaccustomed ways and offer new tools for thinking about our world.” This isn’t a Huck-meets-Katrina book; it’s a much more metaphysical work that questions the nature of time while traversing key moments in American history.

I enjoyed this book at the beginning. Huck, now very old and near dying, is recounting his story to an anonymous amanuensis. He wanders a bit, he cogitates, he questions as much as tells: “Of course, I reckon time differently now than we did then, sweeping down the Mississippi toward Mexico as though in a dream.  Those days did seem like a dream, though not mine, or Jim’s, either, but one belonging to somebody whose hand I almost felt, prodding me onward in spite of my reluctance.” That’s rich language, the kind one wants to read aloud for the pleasure of feeling it roll about in one’s mouth.

As the book progressed and the metaphysical pondering continued, I grew less charmed. The prose was still lovely, but as I read I felt as though I was waiting for someone or something to appear that, Godot-like, never showed its face. What I was longing for, I think, was the physical Huck, the boy of flesh and blood. Yes, Huck was a thinker, but he was also young, vital, alive, and to have this aspect of him jettisoned from the beginning left me frustrated.

Many of Huck’s thoughts—on slavery and race, on friendship and its limits, on the human condition—are interesting. And the book offers some small moments of action: a Civil War battle, the brief glimpse of Katrina, the birth of jazz from southern blues music. Jim, who dies before Huck, reappears in different guises and the reader enjoys seeing him change as his spirit is transported to new eras. But too many of Huck’s thoughts are repetitious, and the blurred depiction of the external world leaves readers anchorless on this float down time and river.

The Boy in His Winter does “promote science literacy in unaccustomed ways,” but the “tools for thinking about our world” are limited: Time is fluid; People do and don’t change. This isn’t so much science literacy as scientific generalization written over and over again.

May 08 2014 06:39 am | Uncategorized

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