by Shelly Lowenkopf
A distinguished writing teacher and author, as well as the journal's poetry editor, Shelly will be presenting the novels that intrigued and mesmerized him into wishing to join the ranks of published writers.
Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain, 1884
I was ten years old when I first heard this narrative read aloud on a soggy day by a frazzled teacher whose fourth-grade students were rained out of an afternoon recess.
The first line struck me with the force of a dodge ball, thrown by the class bully. “Please,” I said, standing. “Please read that again.”
When the teacher did read it again, hearing those words and the ones to follow, I knew I wanted my own copy. I had never heard anything that direct and confidential before. I had no idea a novel could talk to a person in that intimate way. With my own copy, I could reenter that special place whenever I wished. I have had one or more copies of Huckleberry Finn in my possession ever since.
Huck’s narrative voice found me at once. At the time, I’d already read some powerhouses: Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and Rudyard Kipling. However much they transported me, they did not have the deadpan, no-nonsense authority I found in Twain.
Perhaps it was because whenever I read him, I heard my father. Perhaps, also, it was because Twain had the magic of making me think he was conversing with me, taking me into his confidence. “Stay with me,” he seemed to say, “and I will tell you secrets I’ve never told another living soul.”
Like my copies of Huck, the sound of Twain’s narrative has never left me. For the next ten or so years, I read everything of his I could get my hands on, noting how, even in his works I thought less than effective, that voice remained. Small wonder voice has been so important to me in the things I read and those I write.
The more I read Huck over the years, the more significant and important differences between him and Tom Sawyer emerged. For some time after reading Tom's adventures, Tom was my default role model. In my fantasy world, even though I was short, owl-eyed through dark horn-rimmed glasses, and serious, saddened to be missing an outlier friend such as Huck.
With each successive reading, I was more drawn to Huck than Tom. In time, I was ready for a curious and wonderful encounter. Kipling Hagopian, a film producer and director friend of my chum, Barnaby Conrad, asked me to read a film script he was developing, in which Tom and Huck met in later years, when each was in his late thirties.
Hagopian’s script pushed me over the edge. The script, and Twain’s disastrous use of Tom in the final portion of Huckleberry Finn showed me for certain what had been a long time coming. Huck, not Tom, was my narrative armature.
Huck Finn was the best textbook the ten-year-old boy, the emerging writer, and the later stylist could want. From it, I learned how to pick the characters I want to carry the burden of story to its destination, arriving with as few drops spilled as possible. I learned how to take on gigantic moral choices, resist easy outcomes, and when to light out for the territory ahead when the system offered little opportunity for engaging the Social Contract.
I learned how characters spoke, each in a unique voice, a clear reflection of what he or she wanted. Then I learned how some did not say what they meant or mean what they said. Of growing importance, I learned to take on unlikable institutions and conventions, in ways—Twain’s ways—of making me laugh at them until I saw them not for what they claimed to be but for what they in truth were.
Huck and Mr. Twain taught me to look below the surface of things; mindful of snags and sunken tree trunks in the rushing river, then to rejoice in ways of causing me to laugh at myself.
In this great romp of a novel, I saw the struggle within Mr. Twain between Huck and Tom. I saw how I must be on guard, not only for myself, but for every character I create.
To learn so much from one novel has been the kind of education I needed when I began the journey, down the river of narrative on a raft of manuscript pages.