Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book Review: Finn by Jon Clinch

FinnFinn by Jon Clinch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In spite of a lower rating, this book was somewhat compelling and interesting. I had a few issues with it, however, that prompted the two stars. First, a stylistic critique. Clinch's prose has been suggested by other reviewers to be Faulknerian. I really can't agree. There are moments when Clinch experiments with dropping punctuation in a run-on fashion similar to what Faulkner does on occasion, but beyond that I don't see the resemblance. Perhaps it's the disjointed narrative that does not follow chronological order that reminds readers of Faulkner, but again I would argue for dissimilarity. With a novel like Absalom, Absalom!, for example, the non-chronological narrative adds to the layered nature of the act of storytelling, whereas with Finn I only found it confusing and distracting. If there was a higher purpose in telling the story in this manner, besides the attempt to be postmodern and cutting edge in some vague way, I must have missed it.

Second would be some of the more vulgar and "gritty" aspects of the story. Unfortunately I failed to see the higher purpose of those scenes as well, which again seemed to me to be mainly an appeal to postmodern sensibilities. Are they interesting and shocking? Yes. Do they belong in a story about a violent and vulgar human being? Probably. But particularly the scene involving the "preacher", which includes murder and child molestation and murder, in that order, seemed forced and unnecessary. They seemed almost obligatory, as if the author's own hands were tied in writing them, in order to produce a "shocking" book.

Third would be the treatment of race in the novel. According to the back of the book, this is "a novel about race." I don't really think you should be able to state in such a terse manner what a truly good book is "about," but more to the point, I don't think that writing about racists makes a book about race. There was no subtlety at all in the characterization of the various positions on race taken by the characters. The Judge is unrepentant in his racism. That's terrible, but it doesn't make him interesting. Finn is extremely conflicted in his understanding of race, but his vacillations are more confusing, from a characterization standpoint, than complex. I don't think Clinch adds much to the understanding of race in the antebellum period besides what has been well trod territory already.

Finally, the character of Finn himself. Yes, he's a drunk, a scoundrel, and not a great human being overall. But a murderer? I don't believe Finn's characterization adds up to such an extreme. Certainly he's morally and ethically challenged, shall we say, but the crowning point of his character is impotence. Of course, not literally, since he bears a son, but definitely figuratively. The Judge has so emasculated him, and set such an impossible standard of success and achievement, that Finn can never measure up. This much is clear. But Finn's response is always self-pity and self-loathing. Yes, these qualities (when mixed with copious amounts of whiskey) can turn violent. But Finn is an impulsive personality, not a "planner" in any regard, so the premeditated murders do not gel with everything else we know about him. His hallmark is retreat, and like a stray dog, will attack when cornered, but otherwise prefers to be left alone. Again, the murders add an element of excitement and shock value, but I'm not sure they can be validated from a coherency standpoint.

Overall, I don't regret reading it, but I would have preferred a more complexly woven tale.

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