Bittersweet ‘The Boy in His Winter’ boldly reimagines Huck Finn

“You’d be wrong to dismiss my book as just another time-travel adventure,” says the narrator of Norman Lock’s “The Boy in His Winter.” This may be the literary understatement of the year, given that the setting is 2077 and the speaker is Huckleberry Finn.

The fantastical new novel finds an aged Huck dictating memories of an enchanted raft trip down the Mississippi River and his later stints smuggling dope and selling yachts. Wistful to the end, the dying hero calls his story a mixture of “high-minded tragedy and lowborn comedy,” which gets closer to the truth of this striking and original novel. The premise may be an outlandish brain-twister that takes risks with a sacred American myth, but the vessel stays afloat by virtue of a wily ingenuity that perhaps even Mark Twain would admire.

At the start of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the title character acknowledges the previous Tom Sawyer book and pokes fun at the author’s tendency to stretch the truth. Twain never knew the term “metafiction,” which didn’t exist until the 1970s, but Lock obviously relishes it. His iteration of Huck knows Twain’s work and scorns it, a clever pastiche that opens the door to this revisionist adventure.

In the summer of 1835, 13-year-old Huck and the runaway slave Jim take flight from Hannibal, Missouri, on a stolen raft — and that’s when things get freaky. For reasons Huck can’t explain, the raft begins skipping through time like a stone tossed along the surface of the mystical Mississippi. He and Jim witness the Great Flood of 1851 and clashes of Civil War battleships, but their bodies don’t age.

Huck’s pal Tom Sawyer surfaces as an officer on a Confederate warship. A few miles but many decades downriver, the rascal appears again, now on his deathbed in 1903. Huck says farewell to his oldest friend, then steals Tom’s copy of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” a plot device that works in a book that wears its self-awareness like a medal.

Lock jettisons the heavy dialects Twain used, allowing the articulate narrator to quote scripture and Shakespeare with a thespian swagger. Huck explains that his vernacular has been “smoothed out like a wrinkled pair of pants” by the hot iron of education. His attentiveness to language and the storytelling impulse make for frequent interjections, which read more like the author’s fixation than the character’s. “In a story,” Huck says, “words are sufficient to bring a thing to life,” a pertinent observation in a novel so concerned with literature’s ability to reshape reality.

His words are powerful. Describing the raft ride, he says, “We might have fished up great whales from the bottom, so magical the day seemed, though the sky above the shore to either side of us was dark and solemn, as if that afternoon were the first Good Friday and we, two careless centurions throwing dice.”

Jim behaves as superstitiously as in Twain’s telling, but now orates like Othello. Instead of playing the simpleton, he acts more as a wise shaman and sounding board for Huck’s questions on the laws of time and the existence of free will.

Twain’s novel ends with restless Huck vowing to “light out for the Territory.” Lock reminds us of the declaration twice before “Winter” even begins — first in the dedication, then in the epigraph — an early indicator of his tendency to repeat points salient and otherwise. This habit of reiteration borders on exasperating, especially when the ancient narrator keeps noting early on that Jim eventually comes to a grisly fate. A little foreshadowing never hurt anyone, but constant, vague hints tend to build irritation rather than interest. After a rushed act of violence separates the companions, Huck’s contemplation of eternity seems to last an eternity.

Still, Lock’s prose works hard to sustain its wit and resiliency. Huck blames Twain for a “habit of fantasizing and exaggerating.” Though he drifts into rambling, sometimes overwritten rhetorical indulgences, his bittersweet musings make for the book’s most eloquent moments, including considerations of the nature of goodness and “the human wish to be elsewhere and not alone.”

Beyond the Broadway musical “Big River” and a smattering of novels, “Huckleberry Finn” has endured far fewer modern retellings than, say, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” another American fable of restlessness. Handled less delicately, the conceit of Huck and Jim as time travelers could’ve made for a throwaway mashup. Lock’s bold choices for “The Boy in His Winter” catapult these homegrown archetypes into territories Twain never imagined — from Hurricane Katrina to the near-future Netherlands. As Huck observes, “Sometimes one must tell an outlandish story because the truth is too fantastic to be believed.”

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