The following was written last fall upon the request of a literary journal. I had hoped I would like the book, which was a time travel redo of Huck Finn, but it filled me instead with rage, rage that eventually cooled enough to form a review shaped island of text. The journal declined to publish the review for reasons of tone. I understand their decision, as I have been uncomfortable submitting it elsewhere or publishing it here. I get somewhat heated and dismissive. I make derogatory (if obviously stylized and hyperbolic) insinuations about the author. It also doesn’t escape me that I am a white man writing about how another white man writes about race by taking characters from another white man’s book about race, and that one of my issues is that I don’t like the way race is portrayed. Enough apologetics. At least it isn’t raccoon porn.
A book is written and read in Time. Many shed that minute skin, others are swallowed whole, and some of those find a second, third, or fourth life in amber. As Norman Lock’s novel, A Boy in His Winter, purports to be a novel of race relations through history, it seems appropriate to check its ambitions against the life outside the book, as well as its source material, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This is the weather as of this writing: the streets of New York, Chicago, Memphis, Ferguson, and New Orleans are filled with rage and sorrow. The sky is occupied by helicopters and that percussive police state sound. Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, was choked to death by a police officer in Staten Island and despite video evidence the killer was set free. He joins Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown as the latest black man murdered by a badge, although reports are coming in now about another unarmed black man shot in Phoenix. By the time this review appears, more names will fill newsprint, protest signs, Twitter and Facebook feeds. Police lynchings are only the most egregious example of a criminal justice system that incarcerates over two million people—the highest number in the world—and holds another five million under ‘supervision’ of probation or parole. These are Joseph Stalin numbers. This is a heavy context for a mere fiction to bear, but Lock brought it on himself with this press release of a novel. Time-Traveling Huck Finn in Hurricane Katrina! Instead of updating and extending the original novel, A Boy in His Winter serves instead as a two hundred page exercise in white guilt.
Lock’s conceit is this: Mark Twain’s book was a lie. When Jim and Huck stole the raft, they actually traveled both down the Mississippi River and through Time. Huck still narrates, but as a man at the end of his life, deep into our future. How this time travel works is unexplained at considerable length, but even more mind-boggling is how Lock turned the open, searching, and sympathetic voice of thirteen-year-old Huck into an octogenarian bore that corners the hapless at parties with talk of yachts and the lynching he once saw.
That’s right, Jim (the n-word is conspicuously absent in what amounts to a tacit acceptance of censorship) is lynched in the 1960s. This is not really a spoiler because the suspense-adverse Lock more or less tells the reader on the first page. Huck grows up to be a yacht salesman. Now he is telling his life story to an unknown and possibly Martian recorder in a future that is never described. Huck does arrive, sans the recently and unimaginatively murdered Jim, in New Orleans, where he is forced to abandon his wood plank time machine and re-enter the usual flow of years. Rather than give that grand city and its crisis of class, race, weather, police, and government failings the epic scope it demands, Lock has Huck team up with a misfit band of drug smugglers, including another kindly black man destined to be murdered, for some Z-grade Breaking Bad drama that lands Huck in juvenile detention. This would be an excellent opportunity to continue exploring prejudice and injustice but instead Lock gives us a reading list. After he gets out, Huck starts selling yachts because rafts, falls in love with a woman named Jameson because Lock ran out of ideas but not whiskey, and then gets wintery, which is to say, old. Honestly, after Tom Sawyer and Jim die, (Tom’s death slips silent as a stone through the waters of the book) not a single other character comes to life. This is in part because Mark Twain already did the real work with the original cast, and in part because Lock isn’t really interested in them, or the stories in which they figure.
What, then, is Lock concerned with?
Did you know that in 1850 a “little ice age” froze the Big Muddy solid all the way down to St. Louis? Did you know about the African-American infantry regiment in World War One known as the Harlem Hellfighters? Or that the treaty expelling the Choctaw was signed at Fort Adams?
2. Half-assed racial apologetics
“I wish I could say I stole Carlson’s raft to spite him for his prejudice…Enlightenment in 2077 is relatively easy—now that the white race is no longer in the majority. But in 1835, when Jim and I commenced our journey, people were rawer in their sensibilities, more indifferent to the feelings of others.”
H.G. Wells, Tristam Shandy, King Oliver, Bob Marley, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, Tocqueville, Claude Debussy, Marcus Garvey, Jacob Bohme, the Ganges, Calcutta, London, Palm Beach, the Rhine, Barcelona, Morocco, Rotterdam, Mazerati…
4. Inappropriately fancy writing
5. Anxiety about the possibilities of narration
6. Bullshit metaphysics
“Have you considered what this story might mean, or are you taking dictation with no other thought than the payment you’ll receive when I have in my hands the transcript of this—what would you call it? An American picaresque? A chimera spawned by an old man’s grotesque imagination? And will anyone care? I wish I had Jim here to sound! He understood things better than I: the river, life, our helplessness, our desire—the human wish to be elsewhere and not alone. To be unalone, unlike me with no company but a hired amanuensis. I spent a long time in the world but never possessed the knowledge of men and women. Not even with her… Maybe the fault lay in my most unusual childhood. If that is the truth, why have I failed myself? Unless we all do, but with the grace and courage not to grumble.”
A paragraph of this sort of musing would not have been amiss, but similar bone chewing occurs on nearly every page. Lock also can’t go three pages without throwing shade at Twain, a macho tic that seems more like tourettes than the big brass balls he might have intended. And Jim is a magical negro. Although supposedly just floating down the weird timey-wimey Mississip’, Jim is able to recite the entire Gettysburg Address in honor of Lincoln’s assassination and predict the sudden extinction of the passenger pigeon just so Lock can scold us and scratch his guilt-ridden hives.
At this point a comparison to Twain is unfair, if begged for, so instead I will take a lesson from the far superior revisionist history: Bubba Ho-Tep. In the movie, a geriatric Elvis and a body-swapped JFK (he is now a wheelchair-bound black man) directly confront the possibilities that one or both of them might be lunatics, the realities of the abandoned elderly, and a soul-sucking mummy. It is an issue-loaded, high-concept, low-comedy move of which Twain might have approved.
For Twain’s Huck Finn, an outsider to class, civilization, and adulthood, there were no easy answers. Huck carried instead persistent bafflement, compassion, and engagement. He represented an honest perspective on theater, government, storytelling, slavery, manners, ethics, any and every taken-for-granted aspect of American life he encountered. Lock’s Huck wrestles with only his own infuriating acceptance of a self-adequate and self-congratulatory guilt wrapped in metaphysics. Mark Twain would have realized instantly that metaphysics, as they are here deployed, are a superstition no less risible than the fear of witches.
In our ongoing human and literary response to injustice and hypocrisy, will we be bought off by cheap reforms, asphyxiated by frustration and the mere awareness of privilege, or will we do the impossible and maintain an open, engaged relationship to the structures of power that require the permanent subjugation of an underclass? Twain’s Huck Finn still holds the door open to these questions. Lock has shut the door and swallowed the key.