Personal Best: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain

By Gary Kamiya
Published September 30, 1996 7:30PM (EDT)

a white boy and a black man, both runaways, floating down a big river on a raft. It's really not about a lot more than that. It's a sprawling mess, this book, silly and swaggering and filled with extraneous gags. The plot barely tracks: Twain somehow forgets, at a critical moment, that Huck and Jim had lost their canoe -- a twist which had allowed him to keep them drifting illogically downstream, deeper into slave territory and more humbug adventures -- and only an alert proofreader saved him from a howler. And its puerile ending practically swamps the whole thing in dime-novel silliness.

Yet for all of that -- and oddly, maybe because of all of that -- "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is the biggest-hearted book I know. Its generosity is inexhaustible: no matter when I pick it up, it greets me like an old friend who doesn't give a damn that I owe him money and haven't written for five years. It exudes an invincible good nature. Is there a more comradely, straightforward, likeable voice in literature than Huck's? Listen to the way he introduces himself:

"You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another..."

Funny, muscular, lean -- this is language with all the lit'rature boiled out of it, language that moves with the sly grace of an alley cat. Reading Twain here, at the height of his powers, effortlessly breathing out perfect American vernacular, is like watching Willie Mays tracking a fly ball, Miles Davis playing horn, a truck driver backing a 20-foot big rig into a 20-foot-wide space in one shot. It isn't that it's good -- it's that it's right. And getting it right is what this book is all about, whether it's Huck defying every moral law he knows by refusing to turn in Jim, or Twain catching a Mississippi sunrise in a few casual sentences -- casual like the Gettysburg Address is casual.

Thoreau, somewhere, sings the praises of the quintessential American, the able-bodied, free-spirited, open-hearted man who can do everything -- carpentry and farming and mathematics, blacksmithing and a little writing, too. That describes Twain, and Huck too. Those qualities were necessary in the frontier world that Twain was nostalgically evoking from a remove of 40 years; they are doubly necessary for Huck, who is one of the most solitary characters in world literature. Like Odysseus, another waterborne wanderer and one of the few figures in world literature as big as he is, Huck has to do everything for and by himself. He is in the great tradition of those picaresque heroes, wandering rogues, drunken students and other beloved narrative knockabouts who have stumbled and preened their way through brightly-colored, sharp-edged lives since time began. He is one of those rare characters who are so deeply conceived that you cannot feel their edges, yet always know exactly where their center is. A grown-up child, he combines innocence and wisdom, irresponsibility and freedom, in a combination as tasty and wish-fulfilling as a sundae. But the fantasy he embodies -- the desire to run away from home, to float downstream, to save a friend's life -- is grounded in reality. Huck has more of what Twain calls "sand" than any mythical character I know.

And he makes it, ends up, like Jim, free. Perhaps the secret and joyous message of "Huckleberry Finn," the thing that drew me to it as a kid and keeps me coming back to it, is that this 13-year-old boy, all alone except for Jim (who is fated to occupy a different world) is happy and will always be happy. Books, unlike lives, do not fade and fall.

As I've gotten older I've come to see the literary limitations of "Huckleberry Finn" more clearly. It's excessive in every way, good, bad and ugly, and in this age when writers are as elegant and timid as ushers at a funeral, that don't look so good. But I don't care, because I also see more clearly how perfect its language is, how miraculous its hero, how noble its essential vision of brotherhood. Somewhere in my heart, a black man and a white boy will always be floating downstream under the stars, not talking much, smiling.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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