Review of Norman Lock’s A Boy in His Winter

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?

1. Research
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.”

3. Name-dropping
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.

Our Raccoon Cousins

On Laomei Road in Liuhe County
Raccoons visit, lusty, coy, and eerie,
The windows of the houses they find there,
Calling out O Cousin, Cousin, come here!

They seek the stupid, brave, or unwary,
Those weak to the enchantment they carry,
But if their thin shout no answer rouses
They twist and skulk away from the houses.

One night when reading late in a temple,
A young man named Xia, clever yet simple,
Heard repeating his name a light small voice
And hoping a girl or crowd of small boys,

Opened the window and looked out to see
A crone, her eyes glowing and hair greasy.
He wanted to sneer, bitch leave me alone,
But before he could, she entered his home

And shoved him into his stale bedroom where
She clawed off his pants and left him quite bare.
She jerked his hard cock and sucked it until
His semen her throat and belly did fill.

The allure of these raccoons is immense,
Impossible to put off or resist,
And wherever their hairy paws have been,
A rank milky stench sticks long to the skin.

Adapted from a folk tale by Yuan Mei, an 18th century Chinese poet and radical.

My Name Is Penis

It wasn’t always. Originally: Greg. Short for Gregory. But Penis is long for itself. I had never really had a girlfriend before and so when she started calling me Penis, I thought, why rock the boat? I don’t remember when I first saw her. I work from home and don’t go out very often. When I do go out: a weird fog. Everything there but also not. I had seen her around, I guess. She says I perv-smiled at her once in the grocery line and that I was buying canned beets, which is strange because I basically live on frozen burritos. I checked my cabinets for these beets: nada. But she insists this is our story. The next day she waved to me from the M60 bus stop and said that I gave her a little nod-shrug-thing-like-I-was-so-cool. Maybe that happened? It was probably just…I get these spasms in my neck sometimes like a centipede crawled into my mouth when I was asleep and then starts freaking out because it doesn’t want to be there anymore than I want it there. But when I did notice her, cleanly and clearly, at the Ethiopian water charity coffee shop, she seemed like someone I had already been grotesque and awk awk awkward around but who kept talking to me anyway like it was normal and therefore she was safe. I was safe. The reason she stood out from the fog was because she was looking at my penis. Pointedly. For ten whole long hard minutes, she said. When I finally focused on the phenomenon of this young+woman+near usual human averages of size and shape+looking at me=impossible singularity, the singularity winked at me! A woman had never winked at me before. I—my penis—went chubby. She noticed the new tautness of my inseam because she was ogling the place where you would notice. Her eyes went cartoony and buggy almost like a wolf when a nurse walks past. She shimmied her shoulders back a little, pinked because I was beet red, stepped little cat steps over to where I was dumbstruck, chair stuck, and gave me her name. It’s funny how life works. I was only at the Ethiopian water charity coffee shop because a mouse had crawled into the water tank of my espresso machine at my apartment. It didn’t drown. The mouse was standing on its mouse feet like it expected something decent of me and I did that decent thing but screamed a little and hid after. I couldn’t bear to use the machine for a while and so was loosed into the world, into fate! A few months after we started dating she stopped calling me Greg and started calling me Penis. It’s not that my penis is huge or anything. It is, she assures me, thoroughly average. But I am kind of a big guy, halfway between muscly and doughy because I do crunches and push-ups at home but not all the time and also eat sticks of butter more than a person usually does, and tall, so I always thought in relation to my body my penis looked shrimpy. I’m insecure about it when I remember to be. One night—a two-sticks-of-butter night—I thought, since she likes penises so much that she should have access to a more impressive specimen. I told her all sad puppy like that maybe we should find someone with a really big penis on Craigslist and I should just watch her have sex with him, or maybe just be playing a video game really loudly in the other room and that would be our love life, and I’d be okay with that, because I just want her to be happy, and by be happy I did mean that but also meant: not leave me. She said a lot of sweet things then, like that I was her favorite penis, the dearest penis of her heart… sappy penis stuff like that. I believe her when I don’t remember not to. She’s tall,—for a hobbit—her breasts are sorta boat-shaped, and her hips are really narrow. Her hair is thin and sometimes I can see her scalp. Her thighs touch, which she suddenly started worrying about out of nowhere a year ago. So she’s not a model, but I prefer her shape now to other shapes. I like her so much that the porn I watch has become really boring unless the girl looks a little like her. So I guess that’s how she feels about my thoroughly average penis. She’s known plenty of other penises. A couple of months before we met, a penis she liked took her on a box of English peas in the storage room of the restaurant where she works but then pretended it never happened. He didn’t ignore her or anything. He just treated her exactly the same as every body else. He was big on high-fives. The next day he high-fived her and then high-fived the bartender and the bookkeeper too. I told her that’s not how a penis should behave. She said she knew my penis was different. She said she knew right away in the Ethiopian water charity coffee shop. She moved in a couple months ago. When she comes through the door she says Hello Penis! finds me at my computer and then puts her hand there. Once—this is a scary story—when she was messing with the sunflowers on our balcony, she slipped. We live on the eighth floor, and she was standing on a step ladder because sunflowers get really tall. She went right over the edge but caught the railing with one hand. Her mouth was open. Her breathing heavy. I could see all the way down her blouse to the little bows that are stuck to the underwear she buys. I thrust my penis out to her. Oh dear penis! she said and my penis pulled her to safety. That never happened. But if it does, I will be ready. Hello, Penis.