James (Percival Everett) – book review

Percival Everett has rarely held back. His 2011 novel Erasure, now the film American Fiction, explored the treatment of Black American authors and their stories by the publishing industry. His more recent novel The Trees, was a genre-busting dive into the history and practice of lynchings. While Everett takes to these issues extremely seriously he take them on with a satirical eye, leavening his messages through the use of humour and genre. His latest novel James does all this and more, recontextualising one of the formative texts of the American canon Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

The conceit and power of James is in its central character. In Huckleberry Finn, Jim was the simple runaway slave, speaking in a confected slave’s argot and who Huck played tricks on but grew to depend on. In James, he is the narrator and central character. James establishes early on that much of what is portrayed in Huckleberry Finn – the way of speaking, the wide-eyed ignorance – is all performative, a cover put on by adult slaves and taught to their children to avoid the violent ire of the white people:

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.”


Jim is literate. He has been raiding his master’s library to read philosophy (so much so that he has imaginary conversations with likes of Voltaire and Locke) and is keen to write his own story, a desire that has consequences of its own.

The narrative broadly follows the plot of Huckleberry Finn. Jim runs away when he hears that he is going to be sold and separated from his wife and daughter. Huck also runs away but in doing so makes it looks like he has been murdered and suspicion falls on the runaway slave. Everett follows their picaresque adventures down the Mississippi but through Jim recontextualises every moment from the point of view of a man who is at the mercy of every white person that he meets. There are long stretches of Huckleberry Finn in which the two are separated and in these Everett fills in the gaps including an interlude where Jim is ‘hired’ (aka bought) by a travelling minstrel show and made to look like a white man wearing blackface to sing songs invented to reinforce white superiority.

While living in the skin of Huckleberry Finn, James is its own creature – a clear eyed and unflinching view of a world in which people thought it okay for one human to own another:

I was as much scared as angry, but where does a slave put anger? We could be angry with one another; we were human. But the real source of our rage had to go without address, swallowed, repressed.

This altered perspective is all through the text. A good example is when the pair see soldiers marching to fight in the American Civil War, Huck is excited and considers what it would be like to join up. Jim, on the other hand, sees things differently:

“To fight in a war,” [Huck] 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”

James is another masterpiece from Everett. He has taken a text that is seminal but problematic and has reoriented it so that it is humane, compassionate and designed to make readers stop and think about slavery and its impacts. But this is a still, in some ways a road story, an old fashioned adventure tale with close calls and cliffhangers. Everett combines all of these elements with lightness, with humour and with deftness. In doing so he has taken what is considered a classic and crafted what is likely to be a classic of his own.

Robert Goodman
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed

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