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James by Percival Everett review – a gripping reimagining of Huckleberry Finn

James by Percival Everett review – a gripping reimagining of Huckleberry Finn

For most of his prolific, 40-year career, Percival Everett has been published by a non-profit imprint in Minneapolis, outside the traditional centre of US publishing in New York. In the UK, he was long out of print until being picked up by Influx Press, the small independent that in 2022 published his Booker-shortlisted The Trees. But after the success of that novel, major labels on both sides of the Atlantic came calling. Suddenly he’s hot property: his new book, James, arrives hard on the heels of the Oscar-winning film American Fiction, adapted from Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, about a frustrated black novelist who decides to live down to stereotyped expectations of his work by producing a pseudonymous spoof titled My Pafology.

If you’ve read Erasure or seen American Fiction, you’ll be prepared for the central conceit of James, a reboot of Mark Twain’s 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, narrated by the enslaved Jim, one half of the book’s runaway odd couple rafting up the antebellum Mississippi. In Twain’s novel, the boy narrator, Huck, has fled home, only to encounter Jim, his guardian’s slave, also on the run because he’s about to be sold (“Ole missus… treats me pooty rough, but she awluz said she wouldn’ sell me down to Orleans”). In James, Jim’s speech, like that of every black character in the novel, is a calculated code-switching put-on: “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them… The better they feel, the safer we are”, or “Da mo’ betta dey feels, da mo’ safer we be”, in “the correct incorrect grammar” required by what Jim calls “situational translations”.

There’s no mistaking Everett’s glee in the steady comedy this generates throughout the book, but the language games have teeth, too, as a literal matter of life and death in a novel in which roleplay goes hand in hand with survival. Playing fast and loose with the original Twain throughout, the story unspools a series of last-gasp escapes that each usher in further jeopardy, as Jim is caught up in a money-making scam by vagrants posing as down-at-heel aristocrats or sold to a minstrel troupe, before pinning hopes of freeing his family on a hazardous disguise, only for a shipwreck to intervene.

James offers page-turning excitement but also off-kilter philosophical picaresque – Jim enters into dream dialogue with Enlightenment thinkers Voltaire and John Locke to coolly skewer their narrow view of human rights – before finally shifting gear into gun-toting revenge narrative when Jim’s view of white people as his “enemy” (not “oppressor”, which “supposes a victim”) sharpens with every atrocity witnessed en route. It’s American history as real-life dystopia, voiced by its casualties, but as you might guess from The Trees – a novel about lynching that won a prize for comic fiction – solemn it is not: “White people try to tell us that everything will be just fine when we go to heaven. My question is, Will they be there? If so, I might make other arrangements.”

An illustration for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnView image in fullscreen

The central dilemma of Twain’s novel, whose ironies have troubled readers differently down the decades, turns on Huck’s fear that it’s immoral to abet Jim’s flight, not least because Jim wants to free (or, in Huck’s word, “steal”) his family, a notion that leaves the boy aghast. Everett likewise deploys the duo’s misaligned perception for sardonic punch even as he treats their relationship tenderly. Witness the moment when Huck moots going to fight in the civil war:

“To fight in a war,” he said. “Can you imagine?”
“Would that mean facing death every day and doing what other people tell you to do?” I asked.
“I reckon.”
“Yes, Huck, I can imagine.”

Gripping, painful, funny, horrifying, this is multi-level entertainment, a consummate performance to the last. Is there pause for thought when Jim says “white people love feeling guilty”, having told us on the first page that “it always pays to give white folks what they want”? Yes, after decades as a writer’s writer, Everett is finally hitting the big time, but somehow you doubt he’ll be giving anyone the chance to feel too cosy about that.

Source: theguardian.com