A confession: I approached Norman Lock’s The Boy in His Winter with a great amount of trepidation. Here we go again, another character spun-off from a classic. We’ve endured Magwitch and Miss Havisham from Great Expectations alone. Quite a few years ago, I published Arthur Dimmesdale (1983), the story of Hester Prynn’s lover. The novel quickly died a much-deserved death. There are so many other accounts of errant characters spun out of the classics that one pines for old-fashioned originality. Hence, my apprehension with Lock’s novel. Yet by the time I had finished reading this brief account of Huck Finn’s later years, I knew that I had been richly awarded for my time. And that takes me to Lock’s sub-title: An American Novel. Yes, indeed, a true American novel—in many ways as moving as Mark Twain’s original. So three cheers for Norman Lock’s audacity and his enormous talent.
Lock’s novel begins in 1835, when Huck is thirteen years old, and ends in 2070, when his is, well, considerably older, though not as old as you might expect because of a rather ingenious idea established early in the narrative and implied in Twain’s narrative. On the great river, the Mississippi, there was no time, only mythic time, so as long as Huck and Jim remain on the raft, there’s no passage of time. Of course, they venture onto the shore, and as is true in Twain’s masterpiece, it’s what’s on the shore that is truly disconcerting: mendacity, narrow mindedness, venality, and greed. But the river permits “a virtual journey,” a safe haven from the world around them, including catastrophic events such as the Civil War and, later, and both World Wars. They’re alone—the two of them—for 125 years, until 1960, and even after that Huck returns to the raft by himself for another forty-five years, without aging, until his final departure in 2005.
Lock fleshes out Jim into the character we’ve never encountered before; he’s no longer Huck’s (and Twain’s) cipher. Here, for example, a brief scene involving the two of them:
“‘I hate when you sit and brood, Jim.’
‘I don’t brood; I think.’
‘What do you think about?’
‘At night, I think about the origin of stars: how they hurl themselves against the outposts of nothingness. During the day, of the effects of sunlight on fog and water, the secret language of birds and how they turn as one in flight, and how a cloud of gnats reproduces certain nebula in miniature.’”
“Nebula,” you ask, could Jim use such words as ‘nebula”? The language—a word here, another there—isn’t the issue. Lock clarifies: Jim “was not the simpleton Mark Twain made him out to be, nor was he the blank, the zero, the empty slate I sometimes took him for.” As if by osmosis, both absorbed the parlance, the vocabularies, of their times, making it impossible for us to quibble over a word here or there. Jim thinks and responds in kind. That’s what’s important, as in a subsequent scene when Huck asks Jim if he believes in free will. “‘Is there a more ridiculous question to ask a slave?’ he said, laughing.’” That’s pretty damn impressive, no matter how you look at it because The Boy in His Winter is every bit as much about race as Huckleberry Finn. And when Jim reaches a fatal end in 1960, Huck is driven back onto the raft for that additional forty-five years I’ve already mentioned. Twain was definitely on to something: the river was a hell of a lot safer than most of the rest of the country.
It’s Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that blows Huck into linear time. The storm expels Huck—still only thirteen years old—from his childhood, and the remaining part of the novel takes Huck on a voyage as imaginative as the earlier part of the narrative. Lock makes Huck very much a part of our capitalistic era with multiple ironies as he encounters situations that make it impossible for him ever to forget Jim and the watery world the two of them experienced so many years together. There are, also, repeated references to Twain’s own narrative of the two of them but always a darker version of the earlier story. A Boy in His Winter is, in fact, very much the kind of story that Twain might have written in his final, pessimistic years when he was writing The Mysterious Stranger and “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyberg.” Yet the echo of the final pages of Lock’s impressive story is back to Jim, of whom Huck remarked earlier in the story: “he believed in the deceptive appearance of things: that the world is a thin film of light and shadows. What might be on the other side of that film, Jim didn’t say. Maybe nothing. From what I’ve come to know of life, probably nothing.”
Pretty damn impressive.
Norman Lock: The Boy in His Winter
Bellevue Literary Press, 192 pp., $14.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.