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Review: Forget Huck Finn. Novel ‘James’ tells us what Jim thought on the Mississippi

Angela Ajayi | (TNS) Star Tribune

Everyone should know the name Percival Everett by now. His “Also by Percival Everett” lists read like discographies, revealing more than 30 novels with resonant, sometimes playful titles such as “The Trees,” a Booker Prize contender, or “Dr. No,” published by Graywolf Press. Movie “American Fiction,” which just won a screenplay Oscar, is based on his 2001 satire “Erasure.”

His latest, “James,” also playful and resonant, is a rewrite of a deeply controversial classic, Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Today, the novel’s use of racially charged language rattles us. One epithet appears more than 200 times in the unsanitized text. (At some point, an attempt was made to replace the word with “slave.”)

Among other offenses are its derogatory depictions of the enslaved Jim, who is rendered illiterate and mostly unintelligible in colloquial speech. Accusations of minstrelsy have also been rightly lobbed at Twain. Where others might see an exercise in humiliation and vexation, Everett, who is Black, sees an opportunity for re-education and redress.

In his straightforward, easy-prose rewrite of “Finn,” Everett grants us immediate access to that familiar time and place, right before the Civil War, when it was terrifying to be a Black person in Missouri, racially offensive language and all.

As soon as Jim learns he is to be sold, he flees, leaving behind his wife and daughter. Hiding out on nearby Jackson Island, along the Mississippi River, Jim is joined by Huck, who, having faked his death, is on the run from a violent father. Eventually, as fugitives, they cast off downstream toward New Orleans in that rickety canoe – and thus that action-filled adventure story begins.

But there are twists to this new, century-old tale, in which Huck’s own story is mostly secondary. (Some readers who haven’t read the original might wish for more backstory, to help flesh out some scenes.) Our sole protagonist Jim – or James, as he will name himself – harbors a dangerous secret for a slave at that time.

“I am” he confesses, “a man who can read and write, a man who will not let his story be self-related, but self-written.” He also knows how to wield his excellent grasp of language to his benefit, using a “slave filter” – a kind of code switching – when it serves him.

Down river, Jim manages to grab a notebook, some weighty books, among them, Rousseau’s “Discourse in Equality,” as well as a stolen pencil – which, in a shocking lynching scene, ends up costing another man his life.

A fast-paced plot reveals the high stakes. Jim’s path to freedom for himself and his family is riddled with tricksters, hideous danger, an unbelievable revelation and some tragicomedy, including being forced to become part of a traveling minstrel group, performing in black face. (Everett has plenty of derisive fun here, dissecting and subverting damaging stereotypes.)

Ultimately, in Everett’s “James,” we discover a man whose smarts and agency upend the unimaginable indignities of a racist past to help him secure freedom. Ironically, humor and magnanimity, especially toward Huck, also pulse throughout. And, not so ironically, so does Jim’s anger.

For a writer who often plays by few rules, Everett has drawn on what he knows best here – that freedom can be won, one word at a time. Add levity and serious intent and you have a novel that’s a class act.

____

James

By: Percival Everett.

Publisher: Doubleday, 320 pages, $28.

©2024 StarTribune. Visit at startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


Source: Berkshire mont

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