By Jennifer Reese
Updated February 16, 2007 05:00 AM

Jon Clinch’s ravishing first novel, Finn, opens as a flayed human cadaver floats down the Mississippi River ”in the late summer of the year, at a stately pace, as if its blind eyes were busy taking in the blue sky piled dreamily deep with cloud.” All questions about this corpse will eventually be answered, circuitously, lyrically, and at length, as Clinch draws out the meanings in one of the least appealing characters in American literature: Huckleberry Finn’s abusive and drunken ”pap.”

Just as Jean Rhys wrote her somber masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea in the margins of Jane Eyre, so Clinch finds inspiration in one of Mark Twain’s half-formed bit players. He makes no attempt to whitewash his protagonist, who emerges as an intellectually limited man, ravaged by alcoholism and capable of unflinching violence. But Finn is also a tragic figure torn between warring impulses he can’t begin to understand — above all the virulent racism he inherited from his father — and his unbidden desire for a black woman named Mary. In the saga of this tormented human being, Clinch brings us a radical (and endlessly debatable) new take on Twain’s classic, and a stand-alone marvel of a novel. A