Tell and Tell Again: On Percival Everett’s “James”

Evan Grillon reviews Percival Everett’s “James.”

By Evan GrillonJune 17, 2024

Tell and Tell Again: On Percival Everett’s “James”

James by Percival Everett. Doubleday. 320 pages.

ACCORDING TO PERCIVAL EVERETT, at the root of almost everything he writes are “problems of logic.” “I’m interested in the fact that A is A is not the same thing as A equals A,” he said in an interview with this magazine, “and even as I say it, it gives me a headache.” This problem of logical identity, when applied to character and personality, whether within a novel or without, leads to questions that have troubled philosophers for millennia: Can we say that I am the same human being if my character changes fundamentally? If my name changes? If I receive a heart transplant? If we replaced all of the parts of a sailing vessel, one by one, would we say it’s the same ship? Everett’s narrators are preoccupied with such questions, if indirectly, and seem concerned with their detachment from themselves and from others, preoccupied with a feeling of being outsiders to their age and milieu. They are liable to comment ironically on extremely dangerous situations and say the wrong thing at parties, and they are repeatedly finding that A may be A, but A is not equal to A.

Everett’s latest string of novels will not likely give headaches to readers, even if the problem behind them is headache-inducing for their author. Despite their elevated concerns, the books read fast, almost like plays, the dialogue chugging along, treating these problems of logic and identity as jokes. In his novel released this spring, James, the back-and-forth is interrupted only briefly, by scant scene description and summaries of the narrator’s thoughts. Though the novel clocks in at over 300 pages, it can be read in a few short hours.

As an adaptation of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), James faces the narrative challenge of accounting for the title character’s perspective. The story of Huckleberry Finn is of two runaways: one a white boy who hates to be civilized and has a mean drunk for a father, the other a slave, Jim, who escapes after finding out his owner plans to sell him down the river. It’s a book of capers and narrow escapes, and the Jim of Finn is both the butt of many jokes and the occasional dispenser of wisdom that Huck must chew over. The conceit of James is to reimagine the story of Huckleberry Finn from James/Jim’s perspective—and since large swaths of Huckleberry Finn appear to be pure invention on the part of Huck, and just as much on the part of Twain (according to Huck)—that means Everett can invent just about wherever he wants.

Everett’s primary departure from Huckleberry Finn is that James, whom Huck takes to be one of the only sincere figures in his life—the book otherwise being populated with tall tale–tellers, charlatans, and worse—is dissembling just like everybody else. In James, Black slaves talk and act like slaves do in Huckleberry Finn, but only when they’re around White people. When they’re alone, well, they talk like any of a cast of Percival Everett narrators: elevated diction, plenty of puns and wisecracks, a sprinkling of ironic literary references. The “slave filter,” as James calls it, is there to keep them safe. If they act superstitious and subservient, it makes the white people feel safe, and as long as they feel safe, they’re less liable to be punitive and deadly. When James and his various Black companions can relax, and sometimes when they’re on the run, they comment on the distinctions between proleptic and dramatic irony, on metaphors as they’re deployed (“Metaphor,” James says at one point, quite flatly, when he is being trained to temper steel). In order to take this characterization totally seriously, we’d have to believe the slaves would always be able to hide their true diction from others, but of course Huck is constantly catching James out, which is what gives the book a whiff of slapstick comedy. The other white people only figure out they’ve been deceived once James gets them alone in a room with a gun, which is what gives the novel the whiff of a revenge fantasy.

The secret language of James and the other slaves is a clever way of accounting for the racist diction of Huckleberry Finn. It’s also a major constraint for James’s dialogue and structure. As a gambit meant to comfort racist white sensibilities by making slaves seem as stupid, deferential, and, of course, Black as possible, it’s pretty funny for a while, and then it becomes clear that the book has structured itself around this conceit and doesn’t have very many other ideas. Most writers of adaptations take the balancing act of transplanting one’s own concerns and interests onto another work of art to show one’s hand as little as possible. Others seem to try to do their best to let their new work grow out of the previous one. At times, it feels like Everett’s typical preoccupations with language games, puns, and philosophy, which are supposed to be surprising, end up taking precedence over actually creating dimensions and depth for his characters that would complicate the novel or lend it a sense of reality in its time and place.

Everett, who read Huckleberry Finn 15 times in preparing to write this book, clearly did not want to toss the capers out with the bathwater, and so there’s plenty here. In one of the funniest moments in the novel, the charlatan royalty of Finn, who Twain makes bastardize Hamlet’s soliloquy to hilarious effect, here decide to try out Shylock on a Southern crowd. I found myself wishing Everett would rewrite an entire soliloquy as Twain had, but as with elsewhere in the novel, Everett decides to move quickly through this scene.

In James, the title character is behind many of the feats Huck claims as his own in Finn. He saves Huck from drowning, imparts to him most of the knowledge Huck claims for himself, and must constantly coddle the boy’s need to feel superior. To Huck James gives his resourcefulness, his knowledge of the river and how to survive. There are more calculated and unsettling inversions: whereas Huck tells us that Jim agrees to pretend to be the property of the King and the Duke, and indeed to be tied to the mast of their raft so they can travel during the day and won’t be stopped by slavers, in James, the royalty intend to sell him down the river as soon as they can, and aren’t exactly subtle about it. And the end of Finn, which is basically an extended torture session of Jim perpetrated by Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn ostensibly in the name of freeing him, proves to be entirely fantastical. These inversions argue persuasively for Huck not only being an unreliable narrator (and who among us is not) but also one invested in pretending he’s not a party to James’s maltreatment. James takes Huck to be a boy who wants to do good but whose first instinct is to protect himself, and who will tell a lie if it protects his own conscience.

The vision of the United States that James articulates, often through its narrator, is Afropessimistic—even though, when asked about Afropessimism in an LARB interview, Everett remarked that the term sounded like a “redundancy.” Characters who help James toward freedom meet horrible fates, and James often regards with stupefaction and sarcasm the fact that he has survived. Comparing the architectures of James and Huckleberry Finn, it seems James has as much in common in the construction of its plot with the Odyssey or Candide (which James finds in the wild) than it does with Huck Finn. Far from being the naive Candide who hopes this is still the best of all possible worlds, James tries his best to find his way to freedom and dreams of making enough money to buy his family back, but he paradoxically knows it is impossible. As for why James does not simply run away to Illinois, since it’s right there, well, he takes pains to remind us every 20 pages or so that the freedom he might gain will likely be no better than the slavery he experienced in the South. And yet he also wants his freedom and the rescue of his family, who have been sold to a farm where they are being bred like cattle. These two realities of his attitude, which appear at first as contradictions, coil like a spring.

Finally, it seems the only sensible response to depredation and cruelty is to hit back. The book culminates in a violent overthrow of another slave-breeding camp, and concludes with considerable ambiguity. It’s uncertain whether James is captured, though one could argue there’s only one way to read his fate that is coherent with the book’s outlook. Either James continues to just barely get away or he suffers the same fate as everyone else around him. Based on his behavior, one might venture that James is fed up with living on the margins and would like to die rather than continue living as a slave, but he never articulates any such attitude; in fact, he articulates the opposite. Since the book races through so many of these scenes and doesn’t give James the room to ruminate—the typeface is enormous, the chapters often less than five pages and mostly dialogue—there’s barely room to let these ideas percolate.

It’s more interesting, unfortunately, to consider the architecture and philosophy of James, or to compare Huckleberry Finn to James, than it is to actually read James. Many scenes in the latter seem to be sketched rather than fully imagined. Everett’s novels have always contained a lot of dialogue, but as with The Trees (2021) and Dr. No (2022), this one forgoes all but the barest scene description. And in lieu of the sort of ironic detailing and surprises that make a book like Erasure (2001) such a joy to read and reread, James’s reasoning and feelings are instead glossed in a manner that feels redundant rather than revelatory. One chapter begins:

Huck and I had been violently separated, an event that was inevitable, but it was, nonetheless, jarring and unreal. And I was now, temporarily or not, the possession of yet another white person. I didn’t know where my new owner lived, only that he possessed at least one other person, and that I was expected to make iron shoes and nail them onto horses.

None of this information is new to the reader—it’s just what happened in the previous pages. It doesn’t serve to enlighten us as to James’s state of mind. It doesn’t entertain, either. With the material outside of the dialogue already so sparse, the sentences feel perfunctory, as if someone else entirely was narrating James’s fate for the sake of a distracted reader.

Late in the novel, James is at a crossroads and considering his options: “I could always run. But running and escaping were not the same thing. […] As it stood, I had no plan, but it was clear that I needed one. I had to ask myself and answer honestly, How much do I want to be free? And I couldn’t lose sight of my goal of freeing my family. What would freedom be without them?”

The passage reads like a summary of the character’s ambivalence that was already explicit in the text. It’s not that what James says feels incorrect or out of place, only that the sentences, the details, fail to pass the test of necessity. The book is littered with such descriptions and reiterations. In some places, they almost follow a formula: James lays out for us clearly his predicament and its contradictions, and then explains to us why he must resolve to push forward.

The book increasingly takes on the character of a thriller as James’s situation becomes more and more precarious, and one might think that this is where Everett would find another mode or gear. But Everett is most formulaic when James is relating his or others’ fears to us: about being shot at by slavers while trying to tie some logs together into a raft that he and Huck and their doomed friend might escape on, James says, “It was rough going and I was terrified I would drop the twine. I was terrified about everything”; on seeing a riverboat bearing down on their canoe, he remarks, “The sight of the paddle tearing up the water was terrifying”; later, while on a riverboat, standing next to a boiler that is about to explode, “Brock turned and looked at us with a fear I had never seen on any man, white, black, free or slave”; while holding a judge at gunpoint, James thinks, “I had never seen a white man filled with such fear.” Damn the objective correlative; fear is fear is fear is fear. A is A is A is A. Or A is not A, in the latter cases. Indeed, we’re often given descriptions that give negative descriptions: that James has never seen or felt such fear before doesn’t give us any sense of what that fear feels or looks like.

It’s possible to read these passages while recalling Everett’s preoccupation with identity and conclude that this is an artful move. In fact, I found myself contorting myself trying to justify the repetition in just such a manner. But while abstractly each character’s terror or horror in the face of their doom might all share a common form at their base and thus justify the repeated use of the word terrified, what it makes for is stultifying prose. It doesn’t help that there’s little in the prose surrounding these moments to imagine or be delighted by besides the quips in the dialogue.

The book also seems to suffer from slipping jarringly between slapstick and thriller modes. For example, while on the run, James and his newfound white-passing friend Norman concoct a plan for Norman to pretend to be white so he can sell James to a variety of owners, who James will then run away from. In due course, they’ll have enough cash to buy the freedom of their families back. It’s an incredibly dangerous idea bordering on deranged—James and Norman say as much—not least because James is already wanted for murder and for running away, but also because there’s no chance anyone would let him buy his family back. Add to that that James is not even sure Norman is Black, and the whole diversion seems like a cruel joke the author is playing on the characters rather than a genuine, honest-to-god idea that two people in the most desperate straits might come up with. The plan, of course, fails in spectacular fashion, and Norman and James escape only just barely. Conceits like this made it difficult for me to determine what kind of novel I was supposed to be reading. Compare this to the short chapter where James is purchased by a minstrel group run by Daniel Emmett (a real person, responsible for the song “Dixie”), who promises James he is free only to reveal that James will have to pretend to be a white man in blackface, and who also tells James he won’t technically be free until he recoups for them the 200 dollars it took to buy him, at the rate of a dollar per performance. Such a setup manages to be both comic and tragic because it seems to reflect the book’s persuasive pessimism. The freedom white people extend to Black people will never really be freedom, just slavery in another disguise.

Other decisions baffle. Huck’s heritage is an ample surprise and, as other reviewers have pointed out, feels epiphanic in explaining Jim’s characterization in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It explains James’s tenderness towards Huck and his devotion to him. But the manner in which the information is withheld from us and finally revealed feels arbitrary, as though Everett, not James, is withholding it in order to give us a surprise. It would be more artful if James had a reason to keep us in the dark other than that we’re reading a novel. He keeps almost nothing else about himself or his family from us, after all.

It’s one of several decisions toward the end of James that seem engineered to provide the reader with the maximum thrill. At crucial moments, James’s decisions feel bizarrely underdetermined but do reliably lead to more violence. In the course of trying to rescue his family, James returns to his home and kills an overseer in a fit of rage after watching him rape another slave. The scene asks us to enjoy the killing of a monster and James getting away with it: there are finishing moves, the overseer pisses himself, and James gives a speech about how little he cares about his enemy’s ostensible humanity. But mere pages later, James corners another white man, a judge, and demands to know his family’s whereabouts at gunpoint. Whereabouts secured, James ties the man to a tree, remarking that the judge will probably survive and that he knows where James is going. But it makes sense to kill him: he’s the only one with any information about where James has been seen and where he’s going. Leaving him alive means he can send the entirety of Hannibal, Missouri, to chase James and his family down.

James does not explain or justify or even agonize over this choice, nor does he indicate that he regrets it. Given that such a choice will likely give James, a man with few outs, even fewer, and that, given the same choice mere pages ago, he killed the overseer and did away with the body in such a way as to make sure no one would know he was responsible, his decision with the judge is unaccountable. It feels like there’s a rupture in the book’s internal logic: whereas James has always tried to make the choice that will preserve his own safety, here he deliberately makes one that will put him and everyone he loves in harm’s way. It seems like a choice meant to call attention to the writer and to put James in as much danger as possible, rather than one meant to create the most believable ending. Everett’s not one to hide his hand or pretend that novels are stand-ins for reality, but the moves are not handled in a way that’s deliberately metafictional or avant-garde: they’re handled in a way that seems to engineer a particular ending that Everett wants to write.

The book ends in a spasm of violence that would only need to be dosed in gore to satisfy Quentin Tarantino fans. James announces himself “the angel of death” and “a sign” (another reminder that we’re in a novel) to a slaver, echoing, as Matt Seybold points out in his essay at Cleveland Review of Books, Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). To which the slaver replies, “What in tarnation?” before he is gunned down.

Once it becomes clear that the book is going to accelerate towards a violent conclusion, the scarcity of description and the rapidity of the pace left me feeling hollow, which is, perhaps, the point: where some readers might seek to be awash in humanism and empathy in reading a novel about slavery, Everett doesn’t give us the florid descriptions or pause long enough over any scene to allow us to. The ambiguity and menace of the in medias res ending, and of what will happen to James and his family—an ending that James must know is coming, given who he’s left alive and who he’s killed—are perhaps the book’s most artful and subtle moves, moves that ought to make the reader feel less than sanguine about the bloodiness of the book’s final stretch.

Everett has said in several places that “if you can get someone laughing, then you can make them feel like shit a lot more easily.” But I wonder if the novel might have made a more concerted effort to make me feel like shit. In fact, with its perfunctory observations of the scenery and James’s own emotions, the rapid-fire dialogue and pace, the violent denouement, and the obvious metafictional winking at the audience, which Hollywood seems to love these days, the book seems ready to be made into a film. (Everett’s Erasure was made into a film this past year, and The Trees has been optioned for a limited series.) For a writer who has declared his intention to write books that are difficult for his readers, that challenge their expectations and discomfit them, what the reader largely gets in James is a retelling of Huckleberry Finn that is more surprising if you’re reading the books side by side than if you’re just reading James by itself.

LARB Contributor

Evan Grillon is a writer who lives in New York City. He has written for The Southampton Review, Triangle House Review, Salamander, and Wigleaf, among others.


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