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Navigating the murky backwaters of an American literary icon

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Debates as to the identity of America's greatest literary work generally boil down to two choices: Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" or "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain. Perhaps exhausted by the endless argument, in recent years writers have taken matters into their own pens, expanding their favorite stories as they pay homage.

Consider Sena Jeter Naslund. She embarked on an ambitious bit of literary derring-do with "Ahab's Wife," her 2000 bestseller playing on the fringes of Melville's masterpiece. It explored the back story of the Pequod captain's beloved as she languished in Nantucket.

Now comes debut novelist Jon Clinch with Finn, the logical counterpart to Naslund's book. It explores the depravity of young Huck's father, a violent drunk whose racist notions rage against interracial carnal urges.

"Finn" brims with tension, fueled by sentences as taut as a cane pole wrestling a catfish in muddy waters. Considering the heady literary terrain Clinch hopes to master, the novel succeeds better than anyone other than its author could have expected. It offers a jolting companion to the mischievous antics of "Huckleberry Finn."

Clinch proves effective at simultaneously embracing and distancing himself from Twain's celebrated novel. He takes a brief description of Huck's despised "Pap" – discovered by Jim as a corpse in a room afloat with bizarre contents – from Twain and creates a brooding narrative that fits with the earlier novel's events and chronology even as it stakes out much darker territory.

Twain leavened the biting satire and gradual discovery of racial inequality in his novel by telling his story through the youthful Huck's first-person voice. Clinch's tale unfurls in the hands of an omniscient narrator with a blunt, clear-eyed adult perspective.

Pap Finn (we never learn his first name), as Clinch tells us early on, "drags a divisive trail of misery behind him as a mule drags a plow."

Few details of Pap Finn's life emerge in Twain's novel. Clinch takes those scattered references and fleshes out an engrossing tale of corrosive generational warfare. Pap, it turns out, came from a prominent small-town family straight out of Tennessee Williams.

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