The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884) 378 p.
On my first day after moving to Melbourne I walked from Jamie’s house in Brunswick all the way down into the CBD, and on the way I stopped in at Brunswick Bound and – this being a time when I purchased books at a ratio three times greater than I was reading them – picked up a Penguin edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I didn’t get around to reading it until three years later, in my last week before moving out of Melbourne, which is a pleasing little reflection, no less so for the fact that I did it deliberately.
I’ve never before read The Great American Novel, but it’s amazing how much of it already existed in my subconscious thanks to being referenced and imitated in so many other works of art – Huck Finn and the nigger Jim going down the Mississippi on a raft, obviously, but also the thieves in the wrecked paddle steamer, the two conmen who claim to be a duke and a king, and the hiding of money inside a coffin. It’s also interesting, though, how the book doesn’t conform to what I’d thought it would be – a novel about an unlikely friendship between a black slave and a white boy, the boy trying to help the slave escape to the free states. Huck is actually deeply torn about helping Jim escape, believing it to be wrong, and comes close to turning him in more than once. And the book – like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which it’s a direct sequel to, another fact I didn’t realise – is more a string of interconnected encounters than a straightforward novel. Which brings me to the book’s disappointing conclusion, in which Jim is recaptured and Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer uses his captivity as a means of playing out all his romantic fantasies about rescuing prisoners from adventure novels he’s read – digging tunnels, scratching messages in tins, baking rope ladders in pies etc. This joke runs for a hundred pages too long, becomes insufferable, and drags the book down into sheer farce.
Which is a shame, because for the most part The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a good, fun adventure novel with solid literary foundations, and an interesting history; part of the reason it’s considered the first great American novel is because it was the first written in an American dialect – Huck’s twangy, conversational Missouri narration. I can’t say I deeply loved it or was swept away by it, but that’s the way with these things. I’m always happy just to find a 19th century novel that’s easy to read.