James by Percival Everett 

Our Rating
Author: Percival Everett

Category: Historical fiction

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Mantle

ISBN: 9781035031245

RRP: $34.99

James is an extraordinary novel reimagining The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, told from the perspective of Huck’s friend and Miss Watson’s slave, Jim – or, as he prefers, James. Everett’s skill subverts the racism within the original novel, without negating Huck’s obvious love for his friend. But here, Huck is a secondary character: this novel is James’s story. Descartes stated, ‘I think therefore I am’. James, by applying pencil to paper, writes to prove his own existence and worth. 

The plot follows a similar but not identical path to the original narrative, with James running away because he’s about to be sold, and Huck joining him on Jackson Island because he fears his violent father. The muddy brown Mississippi flows through the narrative and is both an escape route and death trap. They raft along that river encountering various characters, including the Duke and Dauphin from Twain’s story. Everett evokes the clownishness of these two conmen, but this only serves to emphasise the jarring contrast between that comedy and their subsequent brutality. 

James and Huck are separated. Everett steers James into situations where the cruelty of slavery is exposed. James finds himself ‘hired’ (bought) by the manager of a minstrel troupe using blackface to pretend an exaggerated Blackness to amuse White citizens. James befriends Norman, another slave, but one so pale he passes as White. Initially, the minstrels present an ‘abolitionist’ position by having Black men, James and (unknowingly) Norman in their troupe, but James discovers that although they don’t own slaves, they have no opposition to others doing so. James reasons then that they’re slavers by philosophy, rather than practice. This philosophical conundrum is one of several in the narrative. (James converses with John Locke in a delirium and Wittgenstein’s language games are paramount to James’s identity.) James is reunited with Huck as the story reaches its climax.

The plot is – like Huck – a secondary element. This novel concerns identity as it’s expressed through character and language. James is more than literate. When he speaks with White people, he adopts the clumsy, vernacular English they expect. The language he speaks while narrating and when talking with other slaves is better English than spoken by slave owners. Slave identity is performative, and Everett unmasks the associated patois as its own form of imprisonment. Characters are drawn to be neither all good nor all bad – including James – and specifies that White doesn’t necessarily mean bad, and Black isn’t always good. 

In the 140 years since publication, the original Twain novel has drawn criticism from various quarters. Twain was initially criticised for his use of vernacular language, and later for his novel’s racism. This novel will probably draw awards and criticism in equal measure. Awards will be well-deserved; criticism won’t. Everett will likely be criticised for allowing James to have superior English to White people. (I can already hear ‘uppity’ shouted from the shadows.) This outstanding, captivating, brilliantly written novel examines and dissects America’s racial divide and deserves every accolade possible.

Reviewed by Bob Moore

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Percival Everett author

Percival Everett is the author of over thirty books, including So Much Blue, Telephone, Dr No and The Trees, which was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize and won the 2022 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. He has received the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California. His novel Erasure has now been adapted into the major film American Fiction. He lives in Los Angeles.

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