Ballad of Huck and Miguel a Fun Spin on Twain


By Tim DeRoche and illustrated by Daniel Gonzalez
Red Tail Press, 270 pages.

To be honest, The Ballad of Huck and Miguel is a one-trick pony. Lucky for us it’s a really good stratagem. What if Huckleberry Finn was a boy from the 21st century and instead of journeying down the might Mississippi with a runaway slave, he was on the lam with an illegal immigrant and floating down the Los Angeles River?

Authors take on classics at their own peril and it’s especially gutsy for a first-time novelist such DeRoche to flirt with one that many, including me, believe to be the much-debated Great American Novel. Having said that, I zipped through DeRoche’s delightful tale much faster than Huck and Miguel paddled away from various dangers. DeRoche’s structure is that of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and is populated by most of the same characters. Our update finds the unschooled-by-choice Huck in Missouri with his reprobate Pap, who thinks that relocation to Golden State would afford better con opportunities. Huck is taken against his will and locked into Pap’s creaky camper and off we go to California, with a few stops in which Huck’s attempts to escape Pap’s clutches are thwarted.

In Los Angeles Huck meets a kindred spirit, Tom Sawyer, of course, but a better scrubbed version that lives with his Aunt Polly, a civil rights lawyer. Huck and Tom mess up a drug deal in which Pap hoped to profit. Instead, Huck is in for a reward and, just as in Twain, Pap is determined to play paterfamilias to get his hands on the dough, even if he has to kill Huck to do so. This means Huck won’t have a lot of time to acclimate to his foster home placement with Miss Watson and Ms. Douglas, a same-sex couple—“thespians,” as Huck calls them in his mangle of the English language. Not that Huck wishes to be “sivilized” in the first place. He roams the rugged hills and dales of northern Los Angeles, his main magnets back to the homestead being good grub and time at the stable, where he befriends Miguel, the horse groomer.

Pap’s appearances always portend disaster and soon Huck and Miguel find themselves running from a crime they didn’t commit. The situation is especially perilous for Miguel as he’s a “Mexigrant,” an illegal immigrant. So it’s down the Los Angeles River for our unlikely twosome. Did I say the Los Angeles River? If you only know it from Hollywood films where it appears as a concrete ditch filled with more graffiti and homeless people than water, you probably don’t know that it rises in the Simi Hills and that some of its 48-mile length is wooded and wild. It’s even pretty deep in spots before it dumps into the Pacific Ocean near Long Beach. DeRoche uses the flight from “policecops” and trigger-happy Pap to construct side journeys through 21st century perils: gangs, hucksters, rattlesnakes, double-dealers, and shady characters so deceitful they almost make Pap seem wholesome. They also rely on the kindness of various strangers such as off-the-grid loners, evangelists, and self-styled revolutionaries. Will it all come out well in the end? Read Huckleberry Finn and you’ve got your answer.

This is the time to make the obligatory remark that Tim DeRoche is no Mark Twain, a statement akin to saying that the horse at the fairgrounds is no Secretariat. DeRoche is clever with capturing Twain’s cadences and Huck’s penchant for garbling words. His major fault is that he slathers what Twain parses out slowly. Occasionally he simply overdoes things. Everything out of Huck’s mouth is a grammatical/synatctical steamboat wreck: ‘cause it remembered me of, breaked glass, sacrificializing, fantods, fantastical, catched, ‘thorities….  Huck narrates the tale and we don’t expect the Queen’s English from him, but it might have worked better had DeRoche made Huck a bit less garrulous and interjected other voices more often. Lost in the constant patter and episodic structure is the languid pacing of Twain’s original that allows the reader to float down the big river rather than cascade down a small one.

But truly I nitpick. If you ask my literary judgment, the best homage to Twain is Jon Cinch’s Finn (2007), an imaginative prequel to Huckleberry Finn. It’s masterful, but it isn’t nearly as much fun as DeRoche’s Ballad of Huck and Miguel. Kudos to DeRoche for being so impertinent as to even attempt such an undertaking. His is a one-trick pony, but it’s no gelding.

Rob Weir            

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