Book review: James, by Percival Everett

Percival ​​Everett’s latest dazzling novel is a supplement and a rebuke, a corrective and a celebration of Mark Twain’s work, writes Stuart Kelly
Percival EverettPercival Everett
Percival Everett

As well as being a staggeringly good opening, the beginning of Mark Twain’s Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn can almost read like a challenge: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” It is a mark of Twain’s genius that the absence of a “the” between the titles is meaningful. Robert Coover, one of the great contemporary American post-modernists, took up the challenge, in part, by writing a sequel, Huck Out West, putting and pitting the character against the Civil War (such sequels are typical of Coover: Pinocchio In Venice is a masterpiece). Percival Everett’s James is something different: the same story, through different eyes, and therefore a different story. The eponymous James is, as you may have guessed, Twain’s escaped slave Jim.

The fates seem to be smiling upon Everett. His novel The Trees was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2022, and one of the detectives in a novel that has supernatural elements alongside white-passing and lynching was an African American called Jim. The Oscar for best adapted filmscript went, this year, to American Fiction, based on Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure. Erasure is about a black novelist so frustrated by exploitative, salacious ghetto memoir, and being told he is “not black enough” as a novelist, he writes a pseudonymous parody, My Pafology, later retitled F***. It is inevitably a success and taken seriously. I reviewed Erasure when it came it and was gobsmacked by it. My overwhelming reaction was “I cannot believe he is getting away with this”, a feeling I have rarely had since (Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy, Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes, Lydia Millet’s George Bush, Dark Prince of Love and Julius Taranto’s How I Won A Nobel Prize are the only books to have elicited a similar gleeful gasp). Alongside James, Mantle are republishing part of Everett’s substantial backlist, so I spent an indulgent few days reading those. I can’t imagine someone not thrilling to James, and am sure they will want to go on to novels such as I Am Not Sidney Poitier – about a person called Not Sidney Poitier, who is adopted by Ted Turner and learns the magical art of Fesmerism, as well as being taught by one Percival Everett (Ted Turner, it transpires, doesn’t like Erasure except for the “novel within the novel” that seemed genuine).

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That example does not do justice to the range of Everett’s work, but one almost constant is his capacity to unsettle. To call his work provocative or praise its sharp insolence is to play into another set of clichés. If he can’t be deferential, he must be an uppity darkiedemic. Everett is always one step ahead of the reader in the carnivalesque of stereotype, pretence, offence and caricature. As James says when he is press-ganged into a minstrel troupe and made to wear blackface, “It was actually painful to watch those white faces laughing at me, laughing at us, but, again, I was fooling them”. It is explained to him: “You’re black, but they won’t let you into the auditorium if they know that, so you have to be white under the makeup so that you can look black to the audience”.

Everything I have read by Everett has been linguistically bravura, and this is no exception. Twain’s original defended the “extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect”, differentiating it from “Missouri negro” and “ordinary ‘Pike County’” (after the famous prohibition on trying to find a motive, moral or plot in the story). Everett goes to extremester lengths. James is shown teaching his children “situational translations”, or proficiency in register and code-switching. Instead of, for example saying “Would you like for me to get some sand?” to her mistress when a pan is on fire, she ought to say “Oh, Lawd, missums ma’am, you wan fo me to gets some sand?” Twain’s verisimilitude is revealed to be their masquerade.

James can not only read – and gives the reader a guide to 18th century race theories – but he writes. It is almost a manifesto: “I am called Jim. I have yet to choose my name… I will be outraged as a matter of course. But my interest is in how these marks that I am scratching on this page can mean anything at all. If they can have meaning, then life can have meaning, then I can have meaning”.

Everett’s novel is a supplement and a rebuke, a corrective and a celebration of Twain’s work. James is a protean figure, and he assume identities as and when appropriate, from the folksy Uncle Remus type to, eventually, a form of white collective hysteria, the Dark Avenger, a kind of fever-dream return of the repressed. This is done while keeping the humanity of James uppermost. He is not a cipher or a metaphor. “I will write myself into being” he states, and author has more authority than master. There is also one twist, a revelation so vast it rewrites everything. I obviously can’t spoil it, but here, at least is a teaser. One characters says “belief has nothing to do with truth”. The sententious phrase “you can be what you want to be” has never been more pointed and poignant.

James, by Percival Everett, Mantle, £20