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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim: A Stupid, Cowardly New Book that Equates Being Black with Flesh Eating

Posted By on Tue, May 3, 2011 at 3:00 PM

click to enlarge "This here Bill feller, you sure he deserves his name up there beside Mr. Twain's?"
  • "This here Bill feller, you sure he deserves his name up there beside Mr. Twain's?"

So, Simon and Schuster's "Blood Enriched Classics" series is dumping out another one of those shovelware "mashups" where some author improvises pulp horror-fiction nonsense on top of a copied-and-pasted text file from a classic you might have read in high school.

Usually this demands no comment. These are less books than tchotkes, the literary equivalent of a Monopoly game branded with your college football team.

But W. Bill Czolgosz's stupid, cowardly Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim deserves a smack or two, and not just because of the way its title and concept suggest an equivalence between blackness and zombiehood.

A book like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at least can lay claim to having roughed up Jane Austen's world. Czolgosz does the opposite: He succeeds in civilizing Huck in ways Aunt Sally and 1,000 clueless schoolboards never quite could.

The trick with these books is that they hew closely to the original's text, except with sea monsters or whatever. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies opens with the memorable line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains." Czolgosz, though, opens far afield of Twain's famous start: "You don't know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter."

Instead, this Huck starts with: "The people used to own other people, an' they had a word for those people. Really mean."

Huck then natters on to tell us that the widow whupped him hard and soaped out his mouth for daring to utter that word again. This is a narrative contrivance harder to swallow than all the book's brain-eating: white Missourians in 1839 feeling today's racial sensitivities, and that the most shocking thing about slavery was that rude word white people used.

So, instead of "Nigger Jim," Huck befriends a slave, "Bagger Jim." "Bagger," you see, is Czolgosz's word for "zombie," a coinage that demanded Czolgosz only find-and-replace two letters in his text file. In Czolgosz's Huck Finn, African Americans have been liberated from slavery well before the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. (Who in a similar but less embarrassing literary tchotke is a vampire hunter.) Instead, the living dead -- black or white -- took their place as property, which means that even in death poor Jim can't escape his life of toil.

That also means that much that sings or stings in Twain has been stripped. Huck Finn stands as the greatest novel America has produced not because of its sometimes tiresome misadventures on the Mississippi. It does so because of that singular moment when an uncivilized boy realizes that he would rather face eternal damnation than abandon his friend, the runaway slave that the civilized world has taught him to consider property.

In Twain, Huck has written a note to Jim's owner explaining, "Your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville." Huck adores Jim, but he knows that Jim is property. He also knows that to fail to return him is to commit a great sin. But he gets to thinking about the unexpected friendship he and Jim had struck:

". . . how he would always call me honey, and pet me

and do everything he could think of for me, and how

good he always was."

Huck gets even more worked up as he looks at the note, which his upbringing urges him to send. But his humanity wins out:

"I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I

studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then

says to myself:

'All right, then, I'll GO to hell' -- and tore it up."

Nowhere else in American literature has so great an artist told so great a truth with so much power. Here is a boy and a writer saying to hell with America's original sin.

Czolgosz stabs at making that moment comic, but to no parodic end.

Huck's note now reads, "Your runaway bagger Jim is down here a mile above Steadman." Huck reels through the same tender memories as in Twain, leavened with a zombie joke or two ("how he wouldn't never bring hisself to eat me no matter how bad the urge got"). He then reaches the same conclusion: He'll go to hell, only this time to protect a good zombie from the fate society demands for the flesh-eating kind.

To this end, Huck sets out to save Jim, who's been placed with dozens of other zombies in a pen, from execution.

Of the "baggers" in a pen being slaughtered by white Southerners, only Jim, who has resisted his natural appetites, is worth saving.

The idea that some inhuman slaves are more human than others has persisted through the centuries, from the "good Negroes" celebrated in Birth of a Nation right up through the perverted belief among too many white Americans today that Barack Obama must somehow be something different from the rest of "them."

Czolgosz shies away from concerns of race or history, preferring instead to grafitti Twain with these Fangoria fantasies, never mind what unfortunate implications he suggests.

In bowdlerized reprints of Huck Finn, where the casual racism is diminished to make modern readers comfortable, this most important of American scenes is diminished. In Czolgosz it is cheapened further still: into light entertainment, enriched with blood, drained of life, and accidentally foul in its meanings.

To hell with it!

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Alan Scherstuhl


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