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  • The Sense of Not Ending
  • Stephen J. Burn (bio)
Huck Out West
Robert Coover
W. W. Norton & Company
320 Pages; Print, $26.95

In his incomplete study of late style, Edward Said identified a microcanon of artists whose final phase of creativity was shadowed by a retreat from continuity and organic wholeness. Standing catastrophically alone, such works flaunt their "disregard for [their] own continuity" as their "irresolution and unsynthesized fragmentariness" and signals their self-imposed exile from earlier work. With appropriate caveats, this rubric might be applied to the millennial fictions produced by an ageing generation of postmodern writers: the stark architecture of David Markson's final works; the stumbling monologue of William Gaddis's Agapē Agape (2002); and the (albeit much more cohesive) shift toward cyclic design in John Barth's late fiction. In each of these cases, the stylistic signature of lateness carries with it a thematic preoccupation with an ageing artist's declining power, which enjoys such currency in the period (Gass's The Tunnel [1995]; DeLillo's Mao II [1991] and arguably Point Omega [2010]; Siegel's Love in a Dead Language [1999]), that it might be taken as one of millennial postmodernism's dominant obsessions.

In the last fifteen years of a remarkably inventive publishing career that has now lasted more than half a century, Robert Coover has at the very least flirted with postmodernism's twilight mood. It's palpable in the final stages of Lucky Pierre (2002), for instance, when his ageing porn star finds himself weakening under "an almost insatiable longing for times past and lost." But Coover's later works are largely distinct in their relative indifference to the familiar story of the elderly writer in decline, and especially in their defiant embrace of continuity over episodic fragmentation. Instead of inverting an early aesthetic in a spirit of stubborn refusal, as Said would have it, Coover has wilfully returned to earlier works not just in the revisionary spirit of earlier postmodern fictions (say Kathy Acker's Don Quixote [1986] or Coover's own "The Gingerbread House" [1969]) but actively to extend their narratives. His longest work to date—The Brunist Day of Wrath (2013)—returns to the scene and much of the cast from his first novel, and picks up the same story five years further down the line. In an even brasher move, Coover's latest novel, Huck Out West (2017) purports to continue The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), following Huck as he lights out for the territories only to find seminal brutalities at the edge of the American empire, with its gold rushes and genocide.

Rejecting and replacing Twain's own unfinished attempt to continue his earlier story—Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians (1889)—Coover partly extends the classic novel by simply continuing the main characters' stories. In rapid succession, then, we learn of Huck's time with the Pony Express and his bond with Eeteh, a Native American outcast; of Tom Sawyer becoming a judge after further mistreating Jim, and then finding that the law is "like magic;" and of Becky Thatcher turning to prostitution after Tom abandons her when she's "six months heavy with our baby." Yet while Coover has worked this historical territory before (most comprehensively in Ghost Town [1998]), part of the pleasure of reading Huck Out West is its linguistic richness, as Coover inhabits and extends Huck's voice, going beyond appeals to stretchers, injuns, and sivilizing to wrest a seemingly endless sequence of puns out of ordinary speech. So we read of Huck's problems with "counterdictions"; see legal claims that are rendered "dull'n void"; and encounter trials led by a "persecuter"; and so on. But while Huck Out West is a ventriloquist act that adopts the voice and vocabulary of Twain's earlier novel, it also notably throws out its ancestor's narrative mechanisms. Huck Finn's picaresque narrative engine requires an enormous cast—around 89 named characters, in fact, which means we meet roughly one new personality each 1,250 words. But these minor characters are largely dispensable in themselves, since they act mostly...


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