The River Never Ends

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 2004, Tom Bentley


Every few years, I re-read some of the books that made a difference to me, from my now far-off adolescent dippings into Hesse (Siddhartha’s think/wait/fast seemed the perfect mantra), to my high school delight in Vonnegut (Kilgore Trout, an anti-hero for the ages), to the treating of my collegiate miasma by Garcia Marquez (I started name-labeling all my earthly goods). And Steinbeck, whether seen through my clear eyes at 9 years old or my bloodshot ones at 49, still touches me with the deep humanity of his vision.

But the work I return to most often, and that returns the most to me, is Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s a book that seems to infinitely reward the reacquaintance: the richness of the language, the perfect pitch of the vernacular, the sheer rascality of Huck, his tenuous, always-threatened-but-developing bond with Jim, and central to the book’s impact, Huck’s evolving compassion.

But perhaps most of all, for the novel’s sense of journey. It’s a tale of movement, physical, emotional, chronological. I go with Huck and Jim down the river, threading its tight places, fearing its snags, reveling in its high-noon brilliance, despairing its desolate, blinding fogs. Spirits rise and sink; there is an ebb and flow to the book that reflects Twain’s humor and hijinks, his exploration of man’s cruelties and shortcomings. The river is life itself, all its changes, captivations, challenges—I journey anew every time I move through the book’s pages.

The great panoply of language, setting and character in Huck Finn set me back on my heels as a reader, but it rocked me forward as a writer. I longed to take a single breath of the rarefied air that Twain seemed to exhale with every page, so I later studied the work with a writer’s eye, trying to see how he saturated readers with just the right amount of preposterousness mixed with pathos, lyric setting with antic gesture. The book seems to be almost a random series of vignettes, with an episodic quality that might seem so loose and casual to a reader’s eye, but that looseness belies the integrity of the book: comic farce followed by moral uplift followed by lyric paean followed by human folly followed by soul-scorched redemption—it’s a picaresque feast, and it sets a table at which every writer should sup, again and again.

Even Tom Sawyer’s blustery intrusion at the end, bewailed by critics as a bloated warping of the novel’s shape, goes down easily with me. The book is so much Twain, cantankerous, doleful, lyrical, uproarious, scruffy and penetrating. I think Huck Finn is the greatest creation of our greatest writer. I’m lucky: I can stop Huck before he lights out for the territories—I can go back to page one and start all over again. Though I’ve read the book ten times or more, just writing this has me hungering to ride the river of Twain’s words all over again. What a book! As Mr. Twain himself might have said, “It’s a corker.” I know I’ll be back in its pages soon, and I know I’ll savor every bend in its river.