‘James’ by Percival Everett book review

Samuel Clemens, who used the steamboat term “Mark Twain” as a pseudonym, knew the Mississippi was a deadly river to navigate. But it feels like a calm stream next to the tumultuous waters of American literature.

You can hear that stress at the end of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” when Huck admits, “If I’d known what a pain it was to make a book, I wouldn’t have tackled it.”

Indeed, Huck has never had it easy.

Mark Twain worked on the manuscript for years, sometimes unsure how to continue it and clearly unsure how to end it. Before the novel was released, someone noticed that an illustration by Uncle Phelps had been enhanced with an obscene donation. That act of vandalism, believed to be by an unknown engraver, was repaired, but just weeks after the book appeared in 1885, the library in Concord, Massachusetts condemned “Huckleberry Finn” as “trash.” Once critics noticed that scent, they never let go.

Huck’s rudeness was initially the problem: “The whole book was more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people,” said a library committee. And the dialect Twain sweated over offended the sensibilities of the self-appointed defenders of English, who knew what a good book should sound like.

As many white Americans began to catch up to Huck’s respect for his black friend, the book’s use of the n-word—more than 200 times—became increasingly intolerable. By the 1950s, some schools were expelling “Huck Finn” because of his racial insensitivity. Even in 2007, it was still one of the ten most challenged books in the country.

It’s worth noting that Huck begins his own story by referring to Mr. Mark Twain with a little metafictional joke: “He mostly told the truth.”

That word “mainly” is as broad as the Mississippi in the spring. And into the flow of such a flood of possibilities, Percival Everett has now set “James,” his sly response to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

The timing may be coincidental, but it couldn’t be better. Our barely United States is once again torn over the question of which books should be banned and how African-American history should be taught. Meanwhile, “American Fiction,” an adaptation of Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure” — which satirizes the publishing industry’s condescending regard for black writers — is scheduled for five Academy Awards. What better time for one of the country’s leading authors to reimagine the nation’s central novel?

Sign up for The Washington Post’s Book World newsletter

Like Huck, you might think, “I’ve been there before,” but the title, “James,” immediately indicates what Everett intends to do with this subversive revision. In these pages, the enslaved man known as Jim can finally declare: “I will not let this condition define me. … My name became my own.”

Early in the novel, James acquires a pencil at an unspeakable price, and he is not afraid to use it. Step aside, Mr. Twain. “I wrote myself into existence,” James proclaims.

Here’s the story we thought we knew, told from the point of view of a “man aware of his world,” a smart 27-year-old who reads Kierkegaard and can laugh at the tension between “proleptic irony or dramatic irony” . .” Everett doesn’t exactly hitch a ride on Twain’s raft, but he sails down the same river, docking at some of the same points while letting others pass. Meanwhile, the humor of the original story has changed to a different shade. This is a book haunted by a little boy’s innocence, but no longer controlled by it. While “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” ridiculed American society through the naivete of its young narrator, “James” critiques white racism with the sharp insight of a character who has felt the lash, and must protect a woman and a child against state-sanctioned torture and rape.

Everett, who has been writing for more than forty years, has experienced terror and humor before. Notably, he published a novel called ‘The Trees’ in 2021, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It’s a brutal comedy about lynching – something I wouldn’t have thought possible before reading it in one chilling day.

But the horror gathers gently in “James.” First, Everett attempts to reorient these characters within his own moral landscape. “Those white boys, Huck and Tom, were looking at me,” James says on a moonlit night. “They were always playing some sort of make-believe game where I was a villain or prey, but definitely their toy.”

Also notice that voice. Rather than merely dismissing Jim’s dialect, Everett makes it central to the story. Every enslaved person in “James” is essentially bilingual, able to switch between the refined English they secretly use among themselves and the shufflin’ language they speak around white people. “Safe movement through the world,” James notes, “depended on language mastery and fluency.” And so we see him training his daughter how to thank Miss Watson for a piece of her terrible cornbread:

“What are you going to say when she asks you?”

The girl practices: “Miss Watson, dat sum conebread lak I neva before et.”

“Try that,” says Jim. “That would be correct incorrect grammar.”

The “correct incorrect grammar” is a perfect metaphor for the rigid but absurd structure of American racism that James struggles with. Every situation, he insists, must be carefully designed to maintain the illusion of black inferiority. During a late-night meeting that reads like an HR training session in hell, James explains that white people’s fragile sense of generosity, justice, and ease is constantly threatened by their own brutality and the humanity of their victims. “White people expect us to sound a certain way and that can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” he says. “The better they feel, the safer we are.”

Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are back – and all grown up

Even if you haven’t read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” since high school, you will encounter Everett’s reenactments of many scenes from Twain’s novel. But they’ve all been reset in surprising ways. Here, for example, it is not Huck’s fault that a rattlesnake bites James, and in his delirium, under the influence of the poison, James debates the meaning of equality with Voltaire.

Later came those well-known villains, the The king and the duke make their way to the raft. Everett can do their shtick well, but he keeps them on a shorter leash. That’s partly because James is less impressed by these con artists than Huck, but also because Everett has better control of his plot. This is not a story told by a boy floating down a river; it’s a story told by a man who races against chaos to bring back his family.

Of course, that means some memorable moments are completely missing, including everything Jim doesn’t see in Twain’s story, like the feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons. Personally, I can never get enough of Emmeline Grangerford – her sentimental poetry! her spidery portraits! – but to compensate, Everett gives us suggestive new incidents, such as James’ stint as a member of a blackface singing group, which is a perfect example of the author’s contrapuntal satire.

Other omissions are more strategic and telling. Everett forgoes the pointless trip to the Phelps farm that spoils the ending of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Instead, “James” leans hard on its thriller elements, gathering pace and terror like a gathering storm. The conclusion is as shocking as it is exciting.

Which book has the most disappointing ending?

Ultimately, what is most striking is the way “James” both honors and interrogates “Huck Finn” along with the nation that reveres him. What does it mean that – in Hemingway’s words – “all modern American literature stems from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn’”? How did we manage to prioritize the story of a white boy’s moral insight over the fate of a black man’s existential danger? Despite Twain’s comedic genius and social courage, “Huckleberry Finn” lets white readers talk about slavery while remaining at the center of the story. Like Huck, we can feel warmed when we courageously decide to go to hell for Jim without being burned.

In the opening pages of Everett’s novel, Miss Watson notices that something is wrong. She asks James, “Have you been to Judge Thatcher’s library room?”

“You mean the room with all the books?”

James laughs and says, “What am I going to do with a book?”

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book club newsletter for The Washington Post.

Leave a Comment