In Huck Out West, Robert Coover—America’s great trickster fabulist—has done it again, though this time instead of expanding one of his earlier works, he’s firmly grasped hold of what many regard as the great American novel: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Better yet, he’s not only told a lively story worthy of Twain’s own vision, but Coover has also remained faithful to the earlier author’s concluding remarks. If you remember the end of the novel, Huck states, “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
Thus, Huck retains his scrappy, outcaste personae and spends, roughly, the next twenty-some years of his life in the “wild” West, part of the time observing the extermination of native peoples and part of the time living with them. The Territory might more accurately be called territories, as the scope of the story includes action in Texas, Kansas, Montana, and Wyoming—plus a fair pit of time in Lakota Country in and around the Black Hills. Huck’s closest friend is a Lakota youth named Eetch, who earns the rancor of his tribe for being so close to a white man. When Huck lives near Eetch’s people, he has a squaw who is missing her nose. He observes about his Lakota years: “I traveled with the tribe for many seasons, mostly hunting down the last of the buffalo herds, having about as good a life as I ever had.”
Both Jim and Tom Sawyer make appearances in the story, Jim rather briefly in a somewhat unconvincing incident, but Tom Sawyer appears several times. He’s his old dominant self, always stealing whatever scenes he’s a part of, which is to say that Coover makes Huck and Jim totally believable and in line with their characters in Twain’s earlier novels. After the Civil War, the two of them are employed briefly as part of the Pony Express. The biggest difference between the two is that Tom is pretty much his old racist self, while Huck is much more humane. Here’s one of Tom’s observations about Indians early in the story, “Besides, Huck, they’re only injuns, who are mostly all ignorant savages and murderers and cannibals.” That’s his response to the mass public hanging of a group of Santee Sioux, with little sense that they are worthy of his humanity. Thus, the continual abuse of Indians runs throughout the story, making Huck’s friendship with Eetch all the more unusual.
The plot—like Huckleberry Finn’s—is episodic with little to give it coherence besides Huck’s own maturing character. He briefly becomes a buffalo hunter, and then a horse wrangler, and he works for the Texas rangers, but it’s in and around Deadwood Gulch where a significant amount of the narrative takes place. Tom is in the Deadwood sequences also, trying to make a quick buck off the gold miners and build the community into a more coherent town. There are numerous shady frontier characters Huck encounters, plus dangerous events that almost result in his death. Above all, we have a sense that Huck and Tom are growing up, getting older. Coover refers to a bald spot on Tom’s head a couple of times. The end of the story is, roughly, twenty years after the end of the Civil War, during America’s Centenary, so both Huck and Tom (if I’ve done my math right) would be in their mid- to late-thirties.
Coover’s humor (like Twain’s) is often ribald. One of the chapters begins as follows, “Nookie told me about the bad man whilst we was taking a bath. Baths warn’t something I was partial to, but she done things with her spidery fingers that made them more favorable. It was like sometimes she had an extra pair of hands. Maybe she used her strange unregular feet with the wiry little toes. She could do most anything with them, including licking them like a cat or lacing them behind her neck. But they warn’t so good for walking. I done more baths with Nookie than all the rest a my life piled together. I knowed they could do a body harm, so I been cautious to mostly stay away from them, but I ain’t sorry for the ones I had with Nookie.”
Nookie? Did that suggestive name even exist back during Huck’s era? In Huck out West, that’s the name Coover uses for a Chinese prostitute, Huck returns to irregularly. The baths are another matter but also mentioned much later in the story when Becky Thatcher appears (long abandoned by Tom Sawyer), forced to sell her body as does Nookie, as one of the few options for a woman’s survival on the frontier. Becky makes Huck take a bath before she’ll have sex with him. Becky, by the way, tells Huck that Tom Sawyer left her when she was six months pregnant.
Coover’s vocabulary is a delight. Huck slaughters the language with such zingers as Jsayzus, hurry-cane, leppresy, Porky-Hauntus, owdacious, melonchotical, argufying, and dozens of others, contributing to an authentic voice that seems totally appropriate for Huck’s character. Ironically, then, when Tom Sawyer says to his friend, “Trouble is, Huck, you never growed up,” the observation is more accurately about himself instead of Huck. Tom’s still trying to be the center of attention in every situation where he finds himself. Huck wants none of it, sivilization, and at the end of Coover’s story he’s ready to move on to some further place where hypocrisy, racism, and conformity will not keep him in the chains that Tom has wrapped around himself.
Three cheers for Robert Coover.
Robert Coover: Huck out West
Norton, 320 pp., $26.95