James by Percival Everett: ‘I am a sign. I am your future. I am James.’  

Cover image for James by Percival EverettI jumped at the chance to read James, Percival Everett’s reimagining of Mark Twain’s American classic, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I read as a child, oblivious to the fact that Twain meant it as a satire. Everett’s novel turns the narrative around, unfolding the story from the point of view of Jim, the slave Huck grew up with.

It’s a horrible world. 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. 

Taken in by a kindly widow, Huck decides to make a run for it when he hears that his drunken, violent father is on his way home, faking his own murder. Jim is hiding out, gathering his thoughts after hearing that there are plans to sell him, separating him from his beloved Sadie and their daughter, Lizzie. When Huck fetches up on Jackson Island, Jim is not best pleased, feeling responsible for this open-hearted boy who treats him with respect but can’t think of him as anything other than a slave. These two set off on a journey, crisscrossing the Mississippi, which will see them encountering con artists posing as royalty, caught between two warring white families, separated and reunited several times. By the end of their odyssey, Jim is faced with news that sends him off into the night armed with determination and a gun.

Then it hit me that it didn’t make any difference whether he was white or black, and what did that mean anyway? Norman Brown might sell me once and take off for the hills, never to be seen again. But he might just as well have done that if he were a black man. Bad as whites were, they had no monopoly on duplicity, dishonesty or perfidy.  

Narrated by Jim at a page-turning pace, Everett’s novel sticks to much of the original plot, including Twain’s set pieces while adding some of his own. As you would expect, there’s a great deal of satirical humour: Jim’s recruitment by travelling minstrels who insist he black up his light skin, pokes satisfying fun at the sheer ludicrousness of white men performing as happy singing slaves. Jim is literate and erudite, visited in dreams by various philosophers eager to explain why they’re against slavery but not abolitionists. The slaves have one style of language for public consumption, dropping it for conversations amongst themselves, puzzling Huck whose eventual understanding that Jim is not unlike him is hastened by a revelation that discombobulates him. The ending is immensely satisfying, and entirely Evertt’s own. A characteristically smart, funny, thought-provoking novel. I’ve been a fan of Everett’s for many years since picking up a few of his novels in the States and am delighted that his work has been recognised here in the UK.

As always, Wikipedia has a very handy plot summary of Twain’s novel plus a brief résumé of the controversy surrounding it which rages on, apparently, some of it judging the novel by modern sensibilities, but I’m not going to comment on that.

Mantle: London 9781035031238 320 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

30 thoughts on “James by Percival Everett: ‘I am a sign. I am your future. I am James.’  ”

  1. This book is getting great reviews, and his work is gaining more recognition in Ireland too, in spite of him writing powerful literature for some time now. I will have to add it to my stack of books too.

  2. Sounds very well done; I haven’t read Huck Finn for ages, though as I child I think I preferred Tom Sawyer (not quite picking up on the actual meanings of HF), HF seemed to drag on. ‘ll look this up and in the meanwhile also dig out my copy of Huck Finn.

      1. Oh no, this isn’t a childhood copy but one acquired sometime in my undergrad years, I don’t somehow remember reading Huck Finn then, though I did revisit Tom Sawyer–it’s one of those two in one eds.

  3. I read this last week, and thought it brilliant. Such a good inside-out-ening of the Twain novel, and thank goodness for that ending (Twain’s leaves much to be desired). I’d be shocked if this wasn’t on prize lists, and it genuinely deserves to be.

    1. Absolutely agree with you about those prize lists. He’s a brilliant satirist, succeeding in making serious points while being very funny in a way that many fail to do.

  4. This sounds wonderful. I would have said that I only learnt about slavery from Roots on TV, but just remembered studying Huck Finn at secondary school. We definitely studied the satire, but I now realise this was part of the fable that racism in the UK wasn’t as bad and that Britain had given up slavery long ago and was therefore blameless. I really must read some Percival Everett.

    1. We seem to have a better awareness of our history these days. Some things do get better! Highly recommend Everett. He’s so good at making serous points with a dollop of humour as the best of satirists do.

  5. There’s quite a buzz about James, which I’ve been interested in for awhile. I read HF twice, at various life points, and didn’t really like it much (I think the satire was lost on me and I did think it rambled). Everette I haven’t read at all, although he’s been on my radar for a few years now. Time perhaps to give him a try?

    1. Well, I’m a long term fan so I’d definitely say yes. I’ve yet to read a novel by him which hasn’t been thoroughly entertaining while making some serious points.

  6. I definitely want to read more Percival Everett this year, he’s such an excellent writer. This sounds fab. Recently watched American Fiction, what a great movie, and it’s definitely whetted my appetite for more. I’m not surprised this is so good but I am pleased.

  7. I’m one of those who absolutely loved Huck Finn, so I’m very excited to get to James soon…but after my move. The brain is too frazzled by boxes and packing tape to concentrate properly atm!!

  8. I just got to The Trees last autumn and was quite impressed by that too. Quite unlike his previous novel. Well, I guess, that’s a pattern all its own, how distinct each of his books is, each from the others. But consistently clever and layered. Definitely looking forward to this one (like Brona, I loved Huck Finn as a younger reader), even more so thanks to your review!

  9. I fear I’m not sufficiently familiar with Huckleberry Finn to get the most out of this, but it sounds very done. (And The Trees was an excellent book, so he’s clearly got the chops for this.)

    1. I don’t think you’d need to be, Jacqui. It’s a very long time since I read it so can remember next to nothing! He’s a great writer. I’m so glad I came across his books all those years ago in the States.

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