‘Huck Finn’ Is a Masterpiece. This Retelling Just Might Be, Too.

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.

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:

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

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.

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