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The Adventures of Joe Harper Paperback – October 4, 2016
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"Phong Nguyen takes on American history and literature in this captivating novel. Writing about a marginal character in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, he illuminates the marginal characters of American culture in the 19th century. The imaginative return of an adult Tom Sawyer is alone worth the price of this book." - Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize
“funny, smart, and full of surprises” – Christine Sneed, author of Paris, He Said
“mordant, hilarious and eminently readable” – Zachary Mason, author of The Lost Books of the Odyssey
"Nguyen’s addition to Twain’s classic does not disappoint. Stylistically, Nguyen’s ability to capture the vernacular of 1870s Missourian hobo life is one of the marvels of this piece of fiction." – Historical Novel Society
About the Author
Phong Nguyen studied writing and publishing at Emerson College (MA) and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin―Milwaukee (PhD). He is currently Editor of Pleiades: Literature in Context and serves as an Associate Professor of English at the University of Central Missouri. Nguyen’s stories have been given special mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, and have won the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award and the Inkwell Annual Fiction award. Individual stories of his have appeared in more than 40 national literary magazines, including Agni, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Boulevard, Massachusetts Review, Chattahoochee Review, Florida Review, Mississippi Review, and North American Review.
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Some parts are telling. Joe is put on a chain gang in Kansas and the gang boss says all the others are there because they’re runaway slaves. But weren’t they “ ’mancipated”? Joe asks the black man next to him on the chain. “ ‘Every black man in prison in Americy is a runaway slave,” he says, and no matter how I twist it, I cain’t argue.”
Other parts, are just funny. Like when Joe narrates their visit to Salt Lake City. Until someone corrects him, he calls its inhabitants “Morons” and their leader “Bring ‘em Young,” which Joe thinks isn’t a bad moniker for a gent with fifty wives, ranging down in age to fifteen. Religions in general get treated roughly by Joe, whose enthusiasm for hypocrisy is non-existent.
We meet up with Tom Sawyer again. He’s not a nice man. Huck Finn, we learn, died fighting for the Yankees in the War. Joe runs into Huck’s grandfather on a train: he wants to know how his son –Huck’s horrifying Dad—is doing.
There’s a story line to this book, but it twists and turns a lot and it doesn’t really lead anywhere, except to the death of illusions that comes as one grows older. But this isn’t a novel of plot, story. It’s a picaresque novel, where the protagonist, free of ties for the most part, wanders. In his wanderings, he meets people and has experiences. For the most part, Joe isn’t a trickster like most picaros (Lazarillo de Tormes, Felix Krull) are, but he does the trickery bit when he has to and does it well. It really is a lot like Huck Finn, not as epic but with a moral outlook and realistic eye about the world Joe travels through, which is the American Midwest and far west of the Reconstruction era, which wasn’t one of our best times morality wise. Not at all!
Carrying two diamonds in a neck sack he has one narrow escape after another. Early in the book Joe takes up with a wise Chinaman and together the ride the rails with hobos, learning their lore and storytelling. Another pivotal character is an Amish run-away bride. Nguyen channels Twain’s writing style as if he is the reincarnated man himself. Some of the original characters enter and leave this telling either in the flesh of Tom Sawyer or via memories as Harper laments to his Mama Sereny in times of stress. There are new individuals, brilliantly fleshed out who carry this story forward in a manner befitting a master story teller.
The eccentrics and oddballs who populated Twain’s original works are given homage in new ways here by an author that so captures the mood and style of the beloved works from the 1800’s that the reader feels he’s found an unpublished trunk work. The book is full of thieving, backstabbing and mob justice. I cannot recommend it highly enough.