Do you remember how the last third of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn made you hate Tom Sawyer? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Robert Coover takes Mark Twain’s iconic characters, ages them about 30 years, places them in Deadwood just before America’s centennial, and uses them to expose the ignorance, violence and cruelty at the heart of America’s westward expansion. If The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was mostly an adventure story for boys, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a story of the loss of innocence, Huck Out West depicts innocence as being trampled over and over again.
Coover lures the reader in with the same captivating first-person narration used by Twain. The recapturing of Huck’s unique voice is a minor miracle. Years after riding out west with Tom and Jim, the freed slave from his boyhood river trip, Huck has spent time as a Pony Express rider, scouted for both sides indiscriminately during the Civil War, lived among the Lakotas, and wrangled horses for General George Custer.
When we first meet up with Huck he has been on his own for some time, a deserter from the army, facilitating trading between the few proprietors in Deadwood and the local tribe. Tom Sawyer, after committing the irredeemable act of selling the free Jim back into slavery, has gone back to Missouri to study the law at the hands of Judge Thatcher, Becky’s father.
When a prospector friend of Huck’s stumbles onto some yellow rock in the Gulch, the rush is on and the growing number of “emigrants” threatens to crowd out Huck and his preferred way of life. Chief among the emigrants is none other than Tom Sawyer himself. This Tom, however, is so twisted and devious that it will make all the readers who cheered on the boy who got out of painting Aunt Polly’s fence question their judgment of character.
Coover piles up the death and depredation. The volume of scalps collected and criminals hung will stagger the mind. Coover keeps bringing back characters from the original novels only to rub the reader’s face in how far they’ve fallen, and how the All-American Tom Sawyer is responsible.
This is an angry, searing look at the myth of American exceptionalism and the romance of the West. While it may not be a great novel on its own rights, it is a fascinating exploration of the implications of the American character as laid out in Twain’s stories. It’s a novel that the late-in-life Twain, of The Mysterious Stranger, would surely approve of and might have written himself had he lived long enough.