www.nytimes.com /2024/03/11/books/review/percival-everett-james.html

Book Review: ‘James,’ by Percival Everett

Dwight Garner 9-11 minutes 3/11/2024
Credit...Dadu Shin


“James” takes Mark Twain’s classic tale and places the enslaved sidekick, Jim, at its center.

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JAMES, by Percival Everett

“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the critic Lionel Trilling wrote, is “one of the world’s great books and one of the central documents of American culture,” in part because it grows with its readers. Mark Twain’s 1884 novel is a catapulting adventure story when one is 10, but its amplitude is grasped only in adulthood.

Here is a question Trilling did not pick up: What about the 10-year-old Black reader who wishes to be catapulted, too, but is too young to understand that the novel’s language, with its 219 uses of the N-word, derives from Twain’s writerly fidelity to the vernacular speech of the American South in the 1830s or 1840s, when the novel is set? This has long been an implacable and racking issue.

Paul Beatty, in his novel “The Sellout” (2015), wrestled with this conundrum. One of his characters decides to read “Huckleberry Finn” aloud to his grandchildren. He does not get far. Then he gets an idea.

Although they are the deepest-thinking, combat-ready 8- and 10-year-olds I know, I knew my babies weren’t ready to comprehend “Huckleberry Finn” on its own merits. That’s why I took the liberty to rewrite Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Where the repugnant “N-word” occurs, I replaced it with “warrior” and the word “slave” with “dark-skinned volunteer.”

Percival Everett’s majestic new novel, “James,” goes several steps further. Everett flips the perspective on the events in “Huckleberry Finn.” He gives us the story as a coolly electric first-person narrative in the voice of Jim, the novel’s enslaved runaway. The pair’s adventures on the raft as it twisted down the Mississippi River were largely, from Huck’s perspective, larks. From Jim’s — excuse me, James’s — point of view, nearly every second is deadly serious. We recall that Jim told Huck, in Twain’s novel, that he was quite done with “adventures.”

Everett’s James is indeed a warrior, of a humane, frazzled and reluctant sort. By the time this novel is finished, he will have killed men and freed fellow slaves and set fire to a particularly dismal plantation. He will be whispered about, a legend. What’s more, Everett has rendered him an ambitious reader, one who instantly grasps, for example, that the Bible is a tool of his oppressors, and who has extended internal dialogues with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire and John Locke, sometimes about slavery. James is literate, and he is taking notes. These notes are costly. Another slave who pilfers a pencil stub for him is lynched for the act.

Because this is a Percival Everett novel, we are not surprised that he tears down and rebuilds a cultural landmark. In addition to his publishing-industry satire “Erasure,” which became the Cord Jefferson film “American Fiction,” this prolific writer has issued novels that take on the complicated legacies of historical figures. These include Sidney Poitier, in “I Am Not Sidney Poitier” (2009), which is one of the funniest novels I have ever read, and the prune-faced South Carolina segregationist Strom Thurmond, in “A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid” (2004).

Because this is a Percival Everett novel, too, it luxuriates in language. Everett, like Twain, is a master of American argot; he is the code switcher’s code switcher. In “James,” he puts his skills to incandescent use. His narrator runs his every public utterance through what he calls his “slave filter,” to make himself sound ridiculous and gullible, to pacify the truculent white people around him. Here is that practice in action, as James explains to a group of enslaved children in a cabin, including a girl named February, how to survive:

The children said together, “And the better they feel, the safer we are.”
“February, translate that.”
“Da mo’ betta dey feels, da mo’ safer we be.”

And here is James, finding himself in Judge Thatcher’s library:

I had wondered every time I sneaked in there what white people would do to a slave who had learned how to read. What would they do to a slave who had taught the other slaves to read? What would they do to a slave who knew what a hypotenuse was, what irony meant, how retribution was spelled?

What sets “James” above Everett’s previous novels, as casually and caustically funny as many are, is that here the humanity is turned up — way up. This is Everett’s most thrilling novel, but also his most soulful. Beneath the wordplay, and below the packed dirt floor of Everett’s moral sensibility, James is an intensely imagined human being. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in “Between the World and Me” (2015), wrote that slavery is not “an indefinable mass of flesh” but “a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own.” Everett more than lives up to that prescription.


The cover of “James” is black. The title is in yellow, and the author’s name is in white.

He is not scoring easy points. He is evoking and critiquing the American experiment, circa the middle of the 19th century, from a wised-up slave’s point of view. Huck talked a lot about feeling lonesome in Twain’s novel. Everett’s James, at certain moments, seems like the loneliest man who ever lived.

Everett mostly sticks to the broad outlines of Twain’s novel. He is riding the same currents; the book flows inexorably, like a river, yet its short chapters keep the movement swift. James is on the run, of course, because he has learned that Miss Watson plans to sell him to a man in New Orleans. He will be separated from his wife and children. Huck is on the run because he has faked his own death after being beaten by his father. They find each other on an island in the Mississippi, and their flight begins. The reader slowly discovers that their bonds run deeper than friendship.

There are familiar large scenes, like Huck and James’s separation in a fog, and their encounter with the deadly con artists, the Duke and the King. But smaller moments are reproduced as well, such as James’s suffering after a rattlesnake bite and Huck’s need to dress like a girl to disguise his identity.

Other scenes drop out, and Everett shifts the setting forward two decades or so, so that we glimpse Union soldiers marching south. New scenes are inserted. I will mention only one, because it is so extraordinary and so deft. At one point James is bought by the Virginia Minstrels, a blackface singing troupe. (They really existed; Twain was a fan.) They need a new tenor, and they’ve heard him singing for his brutal new owner. Because no Black man can appear on a stage, James must himself put on blackface. The moment is ludicrous and terrifying. The troupe includes 10 white men in blackface, “one Black man passing for white and painted black, and me, a light-brown Black man painted black in such a way as to appear like a white man trying to pass for Black.”

In these scenes, Everett makes potent use of the era’s songbook. He also delivers this unforgettable moment, when James in disguise is allowed, for the first time, to stare into the eyes of his oppressors:

White people came out and lined the street, smiling and laughing and clapping. I made eye contact with a couple of people in the crowd and the way they looked at me was different from any contact I had ever had with white people. They were open to me, but what I saw, looking into them, was hardly impressive. They sought to share this moment of mocking me, mocking darkies, laughing at the poor slaves, with joyful, spirited clapping and stomping.

My idea of hell would be to live with a library that contained only reimaginings of famous novels. It’s a wet-brained and dutiful genre, by and large. Or the results are brittle spoofs — to use a word that, according to John Barth, sounds like imperfectly suppressed flatulence — that read as if there are giant scare quotes surrounding the action. Two writers in a hundred walk away unscathed.

“James” is the rarest of exceptions. It should come bundled with Twain’s novel. It is a tangled and subversive homage, a labor of rough love. “His humor and humanity affected me long before I became a writer,” Everett writes of Twain in his acknowledgments. “Heaven for the climate; hell for my long-awaited lunch with Mark Twain.”

Everett does not reprint the famous warning that greets the reader at the start of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Motives, morals and plot are here in abundance, of course. And Everett shoots what is certain to be this book’s legion of readers straight through the heart.

JAMES | By Percival Everett | Doubleday | 303 pp. | $28

A version of this article appears in print on March 31, 2024, Page


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