Huck Out West by Robert Coover
Coover has written quite a bit, but I haven’t read his works until now.
Anyway, Huck Out West takes Twain’s nineteenth century stories of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and gang into their later lives. Part of the joke is that Coover works hard to retain the fractured, illiterate, nineteenth century dialect of the original stories. Even for a native of this region, it’s a chore to read, so one wonders how non-natives (over there in NY or LA, let alone the rest of the Anglophone world) manage.
Tom and Huck are famous for their youthful adventures in Missouri, and Huck rode Jim’s raft down the river. This book picks up their adventures as they mature during and after the war, and head out West.
Huckleberry narrates this account of his travels and “adventures” during and after the war, up until the Little Big Horn. Huck and Tom (and Jim and Becky) are American archetypes, so it is no surprise that they are involved in practically every significant event “out west”.
According to Huck, they served has Pony Express riders, as scouts, hunters, and cowboys. Huck isn’t much for prospecting, has a deft hand with horses, has killed but doesn’t enjoy it. He’s worked for the US Army, for wagon trains, cattle drives, lived with some Lakota, and hid out in the hills. He’s met generals, slave owning Cherokee, missionaries, prostitutes, Indians, prospectors, and every sort of rough character, Everywhere he goes, events and people conspire to ruin his life. Even his love life is a catastrophe. It’s one darn thing after another, and all of it pretty rough and ugly.
Perhaps like the original, this book has shocked some people with its coarse and blunt depiction of racism, violence, and general unattractive behavior of the white Americans in this story. This sure ain’t the way Hollywood and Western music depict the good old days!
Huck is yarning, of course, and he and Tom are allegorical characters, standing for “America”. This hardly literal history, but the truth is that this is what the Westward expansion was like if you were an Indian, non-white, female, or just not interested in killing. This may upset and shock some folks.
Myself, I wasn’t especially surprised by the story. It is true to history. In any case, I grew up on revisionist books and movies such as Little Big Man, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Vidal’s 1876, and even Blazing Saddles. The truth stings.
If this book has a point (besides the dialect), it’s not really clear to me. But Huck’s tales aren’t about getting there, they are about going on down the river to see what happens next.
- Robert Coover, Huck Out West, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
Sunday Book Reviews