5.21.2012

huck finn

We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could ‘a’ laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done.

—Mark Twain's Huck, from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

In recent years I’ve been taken with reading and rereading the classics ... Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nabokov’s Lolita, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I love them all. This time through Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though, I am looking at the characters’ exploits from a much different perspective than when I was a youth.

The other day, after an entire day of wonderfully backbreaking gardening, I washed off my dirt-smudged face, pulled on some cowboy boots, donned my leather jacket and took off on a ride. She started right up with the kind of meaty, gravely purr I’ve quickly come to love. In some ways driving my motorcycle feels liberating, like riding a responsive, obedient horse, bringing her to a gallop with the flick of a wrist—zero to fifty in no time flat.

Cool air rushed up my sleeves as I meandered down Mere Point past impressive granite shelves sprayed with heather and flox, trees caked with lichen, and some apricot-colored buds dotting a pine canopy. The air smelled fresh but of nothing else. Near the end of the road the sky opened up as did the land, and I could see across a clear-cut parcel to the water. At the boat launch I cut the engine and sat quietly gazing across the inlet.

Once the residual buzz of the motor gave way my senses drown in the sounds of chirping birds, waves lapping the shore and the sun on my face. At the end of a long pier two lovers embraced as if they were alone in the world. The pier, with its weathered wooden slats, reminded me of the raft that Huck Finn and Jim floated down the Mississippi river. I thought about how their fantastic journey was as much about forging their companionship as it was about their physical adventure.

I studied the lovers—her pale arms contrasting with his black hair and shirt, their legs disappearing over the side of the pier, perhaps barefoot as I imagined Huck and Jim to be, dipping their toes into the water like I'd done before. The lovers remained as I shut my eyes and imagined Huck and Jim floating, tossing twigs into muddy water, fishing for their breakfast, building campfires, telling tales, getting to know each others realities which were so very different and yet so perfectly matched, not unlike some fathers and sons.

I reminisced about some of my escapades as a young person and the curious friendships I’ve formed over the years. Then I considered, as I’m known to do, that my boy Calvin will never enjoy the luxury of getting into the minds and thoughts of other folks. And then a stream of consciousness overcame me . . .

he’ll never fish from a pier with his dad or build a campfire or sleep by himself under the stars or embrace a lover or tell a story or ride a motorcycle or captain a raft or talk with a friend about the origin of stars or read a book or write a word or cook a meal over hot coals and a flame or swim like a fish in a river or catch a firefly or gallop a horse or forge a friendship like Huck and Jim or the lovers or most anyone in the world or write a work like Samuel Clemens might have thought of doing when he was Calvin’s age.

Then I started up the engine and continued my own little escape up the road not far from the water's edge and under the invisible stars.

Thomas Hart Benton, A Social History of the State of Missouri: Huckleberry Finn (detail of north wall), 1936, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Missouri State Museum.. From cover of Gerald Graff and James Phelan, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy (Boston, Bedford Books, 1995).

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