cover image James


Percival Everett. Doubleday, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-0-385-55036-9

As in his classic novel Erasure, Everett portrays in this ingenious retelling of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a Black man who’s mastered the art of minstrelsy to get what he needs from gullible white people. Many of the same things happen as they do in Twain’s original: Jim escapes from enslavement on a Missouri farm and joins up with Huck, a white boy who’s faked his own death. Huck is fleeing from his abusive father, while Jim is hoping to find a way to free his wife and daughter. The main difference is in the telling. Jim narrates, not Huck, and in so doing he reveals how he employs “slave” talk (“correct incorrect grammar”) when white people can hear, to make them feel safe and superior. Everett also pares down the prose and adds humor in place of sentimentality. When Huck and Jim come upon a band of slave hunters, Huck claims Jim, who’s covered by a tarp, is a white man infected with smallpox (“We keep thinkin’ he gone die, then he just don’t”). Clever additions to the narrative include a tense episode in which Jim is fraudulently sold by a slaver to “Dixie” composer Daniel Decatur Emmett, who has Jim perform in blackface with his singing troupe. Jim’s wrenching odyssey concludes with remarkable revelations, violent showdowns, and insightful meditations on literature and philosophy. Everett has outdone himself. (Mar.)