Lights Out

By D. Berton EmersonJanuary 10, 2017

Lights Out

Huck Out West by Robert Coover

THE ICONIC CLOSING LINES of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) read thus:

so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more. 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.

These words are vintage Twain: casting aspersions on his entire enterprise as a way out the door (a better strategy, perhaps, than his alternative of drowning a character in a well). They also, however, are teeming with romantic and critical possibilities. Whatever the adventures, what might the more politically outspoken Twain and his late-career cynicism have done with Huck confronting both the presumably limitless freedom of western life and the nation’s more troubling legacy of conquest?

Twain never went there. Within a decade, he blew right through Huck’s declaration to give up bookmaking projects, first with Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and shortly thereafter with Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896). Both likewise forgo his intentions to “light out for the Territory,” as the former takes a hot-air balloon east to Egypt and the latter returns to the Phelps farm in Arkansas in a burlesque of the popular detective novels of the day. In a posthumously published essay, “My Literary Shipyard,” Twain confessed another project with Huck as the storyteller and Tom Sawyer and Jim as its heroes, but he destroyed the nearly 40,000-word manuscript, because “that trio had done work enough in this world and were entitled to a permanent rest.” Whether this destroyed manuscript held western adventures — or whether there was a manuscript at all — has been lost to posterity.

Many critics have taken umbrage with Twain’s later treatments of Huck, whether in the novel itself or in Huck’s fate as a voice for Tom’s adventures. Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Lionel Trilling, and Toni Morrison, among others, have fueled debates over the merits of Twain’s perplexing moves following Huck’s noble directive to free Jim at all costs, even hell, and then his cession of all decision-making to a disturbingly reckless Tom on the Phelps farm. Rewriting Twain, John Seelye delivered a raucous R-rated adaptation in The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1970), notably discarding Twain’s comical ending for a more tragic conclusion depicting a manacled Jim drowning in a last-ditch swim for freedom. Going in a new direction, Greg Matthews took up Twain’s original cue for a westward turn in The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1983). Matthews’s version received mixed reviews — among them this jewel: “The result is sometimes cute, but more typically unreadable […] no Twain wit or wisdom […] like Early American–style furniture made of plastic laminate.” Two more indirect adaptations/extensions have come in the form of Nancy Rawles’s My Jim (2005), a moving story narrated by Jim’s enslaved wife Sadie, and Jon Clinch’s Finn: A Novel (2007), which takes on the unenviable task of telling the story of Huck’s father, Pap. Whatever the outcomes of critical debates or successes of the respective novels, imagining Huck’s adventures after his reluctant coming of age and his decision to risk hell in stealing Jim out of slavery has been both fruitful and fraught-filled.

Amid this crowded scene lands Robert Coover’s Huck Out West. While Huck is indeed out west, to call it “a boy’s adventure story” seems more ironic than descriptive, and a provocatively perverse bit of misdirection at that. In Coover’s imagining, nary a child appears in the rough-and-tumble western landscape, and all the kids from the original cast have grown up. There’s a whole lot of sex and facial hair and whisky drinking and scalping and gun fighting. Original cast members like Ben Rogers (the Missouri kid), little Tommy Barnes, and Becky Thatcher deliver memorable if ignominious appearances. Making manifest the boys’ imaginary gang of robbers, Ben has grown up to lead one of the numerous small-time gangs angling for adventures and booty. Shortly after linking up with Huck, rivals murder his whole gang, and he gets a tomahawk in the head after recklessly pursuing a Cherokee woman. Tommy — the boy who fell asleep at the organizational meeting of Tom Sawyer’s gang, got razzed by the other boys, and threatened to tell all before Tom kept him quiet with a five-cent piece — returns in a whisky- and nostalgia-soaked conversation between a recently reunited Tom and Huck. According to Tom, adult Tommy enlisted in the Union army three times over, each time squandering his recruiting bonus before finally being discovered and executed by firing squad. Suffering a less fatal fate, Becky Thatcher becomes affianced to Tom and carries his child but suffers Tom’s abandonment and loses the baby before coming west to look for him, admitting that a “girl’s not supposed to DO that, but I did.” She makes the most of it as an innovative and high-priced call girl intent on taking out revenge on her childhood beau, an intriguing if underplayed subplot. Another curious choice comes in the reprisal of one prominent adult figure from the original, Jim, who enjoys a brief if largely forgettable cameo. Early on, he suffers the cruel fate of being sold back into slavery by Tom and Huck, but he eventually catches some breaks after the war along with a heavy dose of religion, becomes a contented cook for a group of migrant missionaries in order to seek out the rest of his family in the west, and offers endless forbearance to Huck’s unfulfilled promises. The other holdovers are understandably mere dalliances, but the limited engagement with Becky and Jim seem missed opportunities.

The likely reason for such minimal treatments of Becky, Jim, and others would be that Coover’s story is mostly interested in Tom, whose early actions suggest little maturation from the conniving prankster that Twain could never seem to shake. Ever devoted to the romantic and the legendary, Tom enjoys a wealth of material cannily drawn from the United States historical archive (the Fighting Parson, George Custer, the Dakota War, to name a few). As expected, Tom has a knack for being in the right place at the right time for factually anchored storymaking, even though Huck insightfully acknowledges that “ending stories was less important to Tom than beginning them, so we was soon off to other adventures that he thought up or read about in a book or heard tell of.” For instance, Tom and Huck join the Pony Express, even though it means they must abandon Jim. Instead of simply parting ways, though, Tom draws upon his tone-deaf habits by selling Jim to some slaveholding Cherokees, convinced that “Jim’s used to being a slave and he’s probably happier when he has someone telling him what to do. And besides, they’re more like his own kind.” When the transcontinental telegraph makes the Express obsolete, they happen upon the infamous Fighting Parson (John M. Chivington) in New Mexico and learn that 300 Sioux are scheduled to be hanged — Abraham Lincoln would pardon all but 39, to Tom’s chagrin — in what has long stood as the largest mass hanging in United States history. While this event haunts Huck, Tom discovers a much clearer way to engineer his great adventures: turning lawyer. Whereas Huck sees law as the clearest encroachment of civilization upon his vision of the good life, for Tom, the “law was like a rousing adventure book to him and he reverenced lawyers so much that he went off to become one, even though he hated nothing worse’n doing what he ought to do.” Disappearing from Huck’s life for a good while, Tom reappears years later with a dashing ride into Deadwood Gulch, South Dakota, just when Huck is at the end of his rope (literally), rescuing his old pardner with great gusto while sporting an ear-to-ear mustachio and an inconspicuous white suit. The Tom that returns to Deadwood has grand plans, much as he did when he showed up on the Phelps farm, only this time he’s not just an asshole, he’s also a strangely jingoistic asshole whose chief aim becomes throwing the best damned “centenary party” that 1876 would ever see.

And what about Huck? He carries into adulthood the same self-deprecating representation of himself, mostly unmarked by his formerly heroic gesture to risk hell and help Jim to freedom. In happy times left to his own devices, Huck consistently follows his own listless code. As with his time on the raft going down the Mississippi, though, Huck cannot avoid trouble. In the face of conflict, he remains steadfastly driven by the same basic impulse of evasiveness that had fueled his early escape from Pap, his resistance to the socialization of the Widow Douglas, and his push to light out for the territory ahead of the rest. From Texas to Minnesota, Arkansas to Wyoming, Huck takes full — and perhaps geographically farfetched? — advantage of vast western spaces, none of which happen to be empty of natives or migrants or cows. He seems pretty content with short-lived liaisons with Nookie, a Chinese woman who gives incredible baths, and with a no-nosed squaw named Kiwi (whose full name, he confesses, he could never pronounce much less remember). Haunted repeatedly by the Custeresque General Hard Ass, Huck carries an agenda that revolves around finding virgin nature, palavering with small societies of fellow non-ambitious types, and living free and easy and distanced from the greedy prospectors and crass capitalists who consistently muck everything up. Whenever his blissful moments suffer compromise, a more nihilistic yet superstitious adult Huck simply bases all choices on that which would bring good luck or help him avoid bad, perhaps best exemplified by his humane yet risky efforts to set a beaten comrade’s bones when he most needed to get the hell out of Deadwood Gulch.

As he had with Jim, Huck pairs up with a fellow outsider, this time a Lakota friend named Eeteh, which Huck tells us means “Falls-on-His-Face.” His new companion “was mostly a happy loafer like me with a particular hankering for […] whisky and a general dispreciation of the harsh ways of his tribe which, to hear Eeteh tell it, was nigh as ugly as the sivilization I’d lit out from.” Eeteh pops up repeatedly, enlivening Huck’s mixed affection for yarn spinning with his own stories of Coyote, Snake, and other demigods of the Lakota religion. The Lakota, Sioux, and other tribes are no doubt haunted by the same ubiquitous specter that drove Jim and Huck downriver: a white supremacist nation that would take and exploit whatever its empowered citizens damn well wanted. Embodied most clearly in the brutal sadist General Hard Ass, yet more disturbingly in Tom, this prerogative drives Huck to cut and run every time, no matter the risks. Sure, General Hard Ass’s abominable practices — like ordering Huck to kill all the horses of a tribe that his troops are busy massacring — are tempered by the occasional conscience-filled figure. One soldier, Dan Harper, stands as a kindred spirit to Huck. Having seen and participated in some of the worst, he waxes on about the mob-like mentality of the army and dreams of post-army life in the circus before getting ambushed by some vengeful Lakota and suffering a “chest and belly […] full of arrows like a porkypine’s.” In the world of Dan’s death, it’s survival of the cruelest. Perhaps this move comes in shared spirit with Twain’s plausible critique of the brevity of revolutionary impulses (like Huck with Jim in the original) or with flimsy liberal arguments that toothlessly rail at injustice. To Coover’s credit, though, there’s little teleology, no sense that hostile takeovers are inevitable. The Lakota bob and weave and evade long enough in the days that presumably fall just before the Battle of the Little Bighorn — Custer’s Last Stand. The contingency of the unfinished story prompts hope and promise. In the end, Huck and Eeteh swap stories with such aplomb that neither seems fussed about getting the last line.

Twain memorably prefaced the original Huck with an ultimatum: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” When I have taught the book, I have asked students to read this bit of sarcastic hyperbole — or hyperbolic sarcasm — for its multiple possibilities and for its plausible indeterminacy, and it serves as a valuable anchor as we delve into both the ambiguous (Huck’s passivity on the Phelps farm, the racial politics on the whole) and the seemingly straightforward (Jim’s speech on trash, Huck’s lament over the senselessness of the Shepherdson-Grangerford feud). Whether reading within the historical controversies surrounding the novel — its suitability for juvenile readers — or in line with more contemporary post–Civil Rights concerns of antebellum and Reconstruction-era racial relations amid the liberal sociopolitical order, students typically blow right through Twain’s burlesque and strive every which way to find a moral to the story. Their persistence makes for some lively debates in the classroom, demonstrating that the wonders of the original lie in its capacity to beg for moral resolution, which is probably how we can often (maybe) overlook the crazy amount of violence littered throughout the text and (maybe) swallow the vomit in our mouths that comes with the outrageous number of racial epithets. The original drives us to ponder just how Huck could come so far on his journey only to be muzzled once Tom arrives and resumes his role of calling the shots. We understand when Huck conclusively declares that he’s fed up with the paradoxes and hypocrisies of civilized culture, and that he will light out for the territory ahead of the rest.

Coover’s novel has its moments of calling for moralistic readings as well: Huck’s awkward relationship with western troopers and their battles with various Indian tribes, his distaste with money-hungry claim seekers who ruin all the easiness of western life, or his eventual confrontation with Tom and all his hyperactive nationalistic bluster. The novel pushes readers to reflect on a wealth of sociopolitical issues. Just as often, Huck Out West revels in its apparent devotion to meaningless titillation, whether that comes from narrow escapes or raucous sex or gruesome violence. Given the creative and critical enterprise into which Coover’s novel has inserted itself, one seems well inclined to ask, why this novel? Why now? The novel certainly risks the perpetuation of racism and misogyny and other regressive frustrations in the contemporary United States, as does any novel that delves into the seedier sides of everyday life. More valuably, it makes a powerful case for storytelling — with all the attendant pleasures and possibilities, stretcher-filled or not — as a crucial tool in a progressive agenda. Not just any type of storytelling, though. Huck Out West memorably demonstrates the recklessness of starting stories without imagining endings and consequences (see Tom). Steering away from Twain’s ending, though, Coover’s novel offers no more territory for escape or evasion, no place left to get ahead of the rest. There’s also no sense of giving up on the whole enterprise altogether. In Coover’s contribution to this long-running tradition, we get a call to engage. Stories are what we have.


D. Berton Emerson teaches American literature and culture at Whitworth University.

LARB Contributor

D. Berton Emerson teaches American literature and culture at Whitworth University. He has written essays that have appeared in American LiteratureESQ: A Journal of the American RenaissanceNineteenth-Century Literature, and Avidly. He is working on a book titled Local Rules: Antebellum Misfits and their Alternative Democracies.


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