There's a certain audacity involved in any attempt to extend the lives of characters in an American classic like Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Perhaps that's why it's taken more than 130 years for an author of Robert Coover's stature to make that effort. While it's unlikely that Huck Out West will attain the status of its source material, Coover's novel is a stimulating companion to Twain's novel.
In Coover's lively account, Huck's decision to "light out for the Territory" to avoid the attempt to "sivilize" him lands him a world that's about as far from civilization as one could find in 19th-century America. Whether Huck is riding for the Pony Express, scouting for both sides in the Civil War or simply trying to survive in the grimly named town of Deadwood Gulch at the start of the Black Hills Gold Rush in the mid-1870s, he demonstrates an engaging ability to live by his wits and a wryly observant eye about the often bizarre events he witnesses.
Coover packs his story with nearly nonstop, highly cinematic action that includes hangings, explosions and even a beheading. He remains cleverly true to Twain's use of the vernacular as Huck finds himself feeling "meloncholical" or describes another character as "start-naked." Much of the frank fun of the novel lies in trying to sort out the truth from the often exaggerated version of it Huck presents in one of his "stretchers."
Fans of Twain's novel will be pleased that Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher and Jim make appearances, though Huck, as the title suggests, remains the star of the story. Through Huck's friendship with a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe named Eeteh, Coover also doesn't flinch from exposing the cruel treatment of the region's native inhabitants, much of it inflicted here by a murderous George Custer who becomes Huck’s nemesis, earning him the nickname "General Hard Ass."
Whether it's read as a companion to Twain's iconic novel or as a standalone work, Huck Out West is a robust and revealing portrait of the American frontier in a time of dramatic and often wrenching transition.