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Reviews of James by Percival Everett

James

A Novel

by Percival Everett

James by Percival Everett X
James by Percival Everett
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  • Published:
    Mar 2024, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

A brilliant, action-packed reimagining of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both harrowing and ferociously funny, told from the enslaved Jim's point of view. From the "literary icon" (Oprah Daily) and Pulitzer Prize Finalist whose novel Erasure is the basis for Cord Jefferson's critically acclaimed film American Fiction.

When the enslaved Jim overhears that he is about to be sold to a man in New Orleans, separated from his wife and daughter forever, he decides to hide on nearby Jackson Island until he can formulate a plan. Meanwhile, Huck Finn has faked his own death to escape his violent father, recently returned to town. As all readers of American literature know, thus begins the dangerous and transcendent journey by raft down the Mississippi River toward the elusive and too-often-unreliable promise of the Free States and beyond.

While many narrative set pieces of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remain in place (floods and storms, stumbling across both unexpected death and unexpected treasure in the myriad stopping points along the river's banks, encountering the scam artists posing as the Duke and Dauphin…), Jim's agency, intelligence and compassion are shown in a radically new light.

Brimming with the electrifying humor and lacerating observations that have made Everett a "literary icon" (Oprah Daily), and one of the most decorated writers of our lifetime, James is destined to be a major publishing event and a cornerstone of twenty-first century American literature.

Excerpt
James

Those little bastards were hiding out there in the tall grass. The moon was not quite full, but bright, and it was behind them, so I could see them as plain as day, though it was deep night. Lightning bugs flashed against the black canvas. I waited at Miss Watson's kitchen door, rocked a loose step board with my foot, knew she was going to tell me to fix it tomorrow. I was waiting there for her to give me a pan of corn bread that she had made with my Sadie's recipe. Waiting is a big part of a slave's life, waiting and waiting to wait some more. Waiting for demands. Waiting for food. Waiting for the ends of days. Waiting for the just and deserved Christian reward at the end of it all.

Those white boys, Huck and Tom, watched me. They were always playing some kind of pretending game where I was either a villain or prey, but certainly their toy. They hopped about out there with the chiggers, mosquitoes and other biting bugs, but never made any progress toward me. It always pays ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. James is a retelling of Mark Twain's 1885 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is widely regarded as a classic work of American literature. Have you read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn before? How does Everett subvert Twain's original text? Did this reimagination change your perspective on the original novel?
  2. Twain is well-known for his satirical writing. Where does Everett use humor and satire in James? What social and cultural conditions does the novel's satire mock or critique?
  3. Reflect on Jim's narration. Why does he switch between vernacular and standardized English? How did this code-switching affect your reading experience?
  4. Describe Huck's role in the story. How does Jim's fugitive status, as well as race, color, class, age, ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Jim's voice, along with the voices of the other enslaved people he knows and meets on his journey, is one of constant code switching. The ignorance-feigning language of minstrelsy also hearkens back to Erasure's book-within-a-book called My Pafology, which is written with a white audience in mind, employing the stereotypical language this audience would expect to hear from a streetwise Black criminal. Slavery's violence is unflinchingly captured in all of its horror, but also in its absurdity. Like the author supposedly standing up for Black voices in American Fiction, there are white savior types in James held up for satirical ridicule. Readers of some of Everett's other work may find themselves yearning for the stranger qualities of books like Erasure and Dr. No. James is a straightforward novel with few frills. However, it features some excellent surprises and the build up to and execution of the final act are expertly done...continued

Full Review Members Only (761 words)

(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Using nuance and vulnerability to emphasize Jim's humanity, [Everett leaves a] stamp on the literary landscape as he dismantles the stereotypes of the enslaved humans depicted in Twain's classic... Percival Everett has accomplished more than humanizing a marginalized voice. He has, once again, delivered a seminal work of literary reparation.

Chicago Review of Books
Percival Everett continues his blistering pace of unforgettable fiction with James ... Everett infuses this well-known story with a refreshingly contemporary jolt of agency, intelligence, and compassion, bringing new life to the character of Jim and the American epic.

Elle
[Everett is a] prolific genius... A literary jukebox... If anyone is poised to casually (after all, he has bills) write a masterpiece that not only becomes instant canon but also sets a brush fire to the current ones it stands upon, it's Everett. And that's exactly what he's done with James.

Esquire
Blasted clean of Twain's characterization, Jim emerges here as a man of great dignity, altruism, and intelligence... Clever, soulful, and full of righteous rage, [Jim's] long-silenced voice resounds through this remarkable novel. Subversive and thrilling, James is destined to become a modern classic.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Playful and resonant... Everett has plenty of derisive fun here, dissecting and subverting damaging stereotypes... 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.

The Atlantic
To call James a retelling would be an injustice. Everett sends Mark Twain's classic through the looking glass. What emerges is no longer a children's book, but a blood-soaked historical novel stripped of all ornament... Genius.

The Boston Globe
Heir to Mark Twain's satirical vision, Everett turns a boyhood memoir into a neo-fugitive slave narrative thriller... Using erasure, Everett has produced a daring emendation. Redacting swaths of Huck Finn, he's revealed another code: the untranslated story of James's self-emancipation... James is a provocative, enlightening work of literary art.

The Chicago Tribune
Percival Everett [is] our current Great American Novelist... [James ] is a masterpiece that will help redefine one of the classics of American literature, while also being a major achievement on its own... I almost cannot imagine a future where teachers assign The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without also assigning James alongside it... Everett is one of the most, if not the most interesting writers working today.

The Los Angeles Times
Once you've picked up Everett's James , a retelling of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , you'll know that only Everett could take on the task of allowing Mark Twain's character Jim to show what was missing from the original story.

The New Republic
Everett's James isn't out to displace Twain's book. It's carrying out a bolder, more ingenuous, and, characteristic of its author, more subversive agenda…Everett endows Jim with greater dimension and nuance than his original creator did. Huckleberry Finn provided Jim with courage, dignity, and virtue. James bestows upon him the greater, if more complicated, privilege of full (if not yet unfettered) humanity.

The Wall Street Journal
[A] careful and thought-provoking auditing of Huckleberry Finn... [James is] a kind of commentary or midrash, broadening our understanding of an endangered classic by bringing out the tragedy behind the comic facade. And that is no small thing. I expect that James will be spoken of as a repudiation of Huckleberry Finn, but a book like this can only be written in a spirit of engaged devotion. More than a correction, it's a rescue mission. And maybe this time it will work.

The Washington Post
[A] sly response to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ... While The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn lampooned American society through the naiveté of its young narrator, James critiques White racism with the sharp insight of a character who's felt the lash…What's most striking, ultimately, is the way James both honors and interrogates Huck Finn, along with the nation that reveres it.

Time
Audacious... Everett [gives] Jim—who, we learn, prefers to be called James—his agency, letting his intelligence and compassion shine through. James is a poignant if often distressing reintroduction to a beloved character who deserved better.

Booklist (starred review)
In an astounding riposte, the much-lauded Everett rewrites [Huckleberry Finn] as a liberation narrative, told from Jim (or rather James') point of view...An absolutely essential read.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The audacious and prolific Everett dives into the very heart of Twain's epochal odyssey...One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Ingenious…Jim's wrenching odyssey concludes with remarkable revelations, violent showdowns, and insightful meditations on literature and philosophy. Everett has outdone himself.

Reader Reviews

Gloria M

Destined to be a new classic!
I honestly only have minimal memory of "The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain. I know I read it after "Tom Sawyer" and I was probably eight or nine years old-that was the time frame when I was borrowing a lot of classics from my local ...   Read More
Jill

Brilliantly Written and Told
JAMES by Percival Everett Narration by Dominic Hoffman was perfectly done. Percival Everett has written a brilliant story of reimagining at its best. I absolutely loved everything he took liberty with in this story about James. James is a father...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Reimagining the Classics from a New Perspective

Jackets of the four main books in the article representing reimaginings of classic literature Percival Everett's James is a reimagining of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the perspective of Huck's enslaved companion Jim. This kind of reconfiguration is a common source of inspiration for authors, as one can see in the following list of books that similarly provide new points of view on classic works of literature.

Beautiful Little Fools by Jillian Cantor (2022)

This novel is a retelling of The Great Gatsby that focuses primarily on the women from the original story: Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby's former flame; Jordan Baker, Daisy's best friend; and Catherine McCoy, a suffragette who appears only briefly in the original text. In an interview with The Avid Pen, Cantor explains that she was inspired to write the novel by the ...

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Read-Alikes

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    The Water Dancer meets The Prophets in this spare, gripping, and beautifully rendered novel exploring love and friendship among a group of enslaved Black strivers in the mid-19th century.

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