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'James' revisits Huck Finn's traveling companion, giving rise to a new classic

Doubleday

An enslaved man debates John Locke. A Black man pretends to be a white man in blackface to sing in a new minstrel show. In a fever dream of a retelling, the new reigning king of satire, Percival Everett, has turned one of America's best loved classics, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, upside down, placing Huck's enslaved companion Jim at the center and making him the narrator. The result is strangely new and familiar – an adrenaline-spiking adventure with absurdity and tragedy blended together.

Re-imaginings of classic literature are challenging, often unnecessary endeavors. This one is different, a startling homage and a new classic in its own right. Readers may be surprised by how much of the original scaffolding remains and how well the turnabout works, swapping a young man's moral awakening for something even more fraught. A kind of historical heist novel about human cargo, as in the original, James is an enslaved man in antebellum Missouri. James loves his wife Sadie and their 9-year old daughter Lizzie, and keeps them safe by not just adhering to – but mastering – the racial codes of an inhumane system.

Despite those efforts, one day Jim learns the unthinkable — the mistress is planning to sell him down the river but keep Sadie and Lizzie. James can't have his family separated, so he runs to nearby Jackson Island, planning to hide out until he can figure a way to secure their freedom. Jim's unlikely friend, young Huckleberry Finn also has reason to hide and to run with his abusive and alcoholic father back in town. After faking his own death (an action that unintentionally puts James under suspicion), Huck begs to come along, offering to pretend to be Jim's owner. This alliance launches a delirious odyssey, two runaways navigating a treacherous river on a raft.

A subtle but significant change is that while the events of Twain's 1884 novel take place in the Mississippi Valley "forty to fifty years ago," in the 1840s, Everett advances the timeline by two decades, putting the nation on the cusp of civil war, though James and Huck don't know it.

More importantly, Everett provides what Twain could not: Jim's deep interior life. The entire story is narrated in his voice. Getting inside James's head is a remarkable experience. Though they're sometimes parted, James (as he prefers to be called in Everett's novel) and Huck somehow always find each other again, and that creates a sense of surreality.

Along with shifting states of consciousness and reality, identity is a crucial and an explicitly slippery thing. Twain wrote Huck Finn in region-, race- and even age-specific dialect and pushed back on critics who found the language objectionable by explaining each dialect contained was researched with anthropological attention to detail. Everett, like Twain, is similarly obsessed with the link between language and identity. James plays the role of the docile and ignorant slave, whose speech to white people is barely intelligible, while inside he's savvy, literate, and nursing a bubbling rage. Every chance meeting with white folks is a performance, a private minstrel show in which James code switches his style of speaking for white comfort.

The artifice serves a crucial purpose, and James is a consummate trickster – the cooperative slave, play acting exaggerated subservience, with his voice and diction morphing to character. And despite their growing connection, James's audience is all white people, old and young – including Huck. James only holds fast to only one true thing: His vow to his family: to "get me a job and save me sum money and come back and buy my Sadie and Lizzie."

Every now and then Huck can sense the falseness and it destabilizes their partnership. Their connection is real and tenuous, undermined by who they are – or appear to be to society – and the gap between them. Those contradictions are hard for a boy to grasp. It would be poignant but the repetition of those scenes of code switching uncertainty also renders this comic. As narrator, James recounts this moment when Huck got close to discovering his act:

Again and again. In true Everett fashion, the intertwined artifice of race and language is stretched to self-reflexive absurdity. On top of the issue of interracial, interpersonal performance, the author mimics and pokes fun at the self awareness and calculus of slave narratives like the one James is himself secretly trying to craft (or maybe, rather modern literary analysis of slave narratives) and what James explicitly calls "the frame" in storytelling. James knows he's smarter than those who would consider themselves his betters and, sometimes, as long as he's safe and among other Black people, he secretly enjoys having some fun with his expertise.

The earliest and most self-conscious example of this linguistic play and reflexivity occurs before James and Huck go on the run. James was careful to approach Huck and Tom like any other white folks – with caution and concealed distance. When the boys think to play a trick on James while he's sleeping, the truth is "Those boys couldn't sneak up on a blind and deaf man while a band was playing." But James spins a story letting the boys think their trick of moving his hat while he was sleeping has been so successful that he believes he was visited by a witch. He's telling a tale to another Black man, but he knows that he's being overheard by the two white boys. This is the dual frame of which James is explicitly aware. Similarly, when teaching his daughter Lizzie how to manage the expectations of white people and avoid insulting Miss Watson about her terrible cooking, James advises the girl: "'Try'dat be,' I said. 'That would be the correct incorrect grammar.'"

James takes pride and pleasure in these deceptions. But fluidity of language and role playing can never be just a game. This 19th century linguistic shape-shifting can become a matter of life or death in an instant. So the intimacy between him and Huck is worrying: "spending time with Huck alone had caused me to relax in a way that was dangerous." Plus, the people James and Huck encounter are also, more often than not, playing with their own roles. When James meets Norman, a man with white skin who seems to see through his racial performance, he finds it a "terrifying notion." James's horror and fear are so obvious that Norman feels compelled to reassure him: "'You didn't slip," he said. I'se jest knows.'" James is impressed: "His accent was perfect. He was bilingual, fluent in a language no white person could master." But Norman has his own secrets of identity and language. He's actually of mixed race passing for white, and James just doesn't detect it.

Like James and Norman's encounter, the novel is exquisitely multilayered. A brilliant, sometimes shocking mashup of various literary forms, James has the arc of an odyssey, with the quest for home, and an abundance of absurdly comical humor. Con men and tricksters like the Duke and the Dauphin are borrowed from Twain. But even with the humor, Everett weaves in signature touches, like dream sequences with John Locke, whom James criticizes over his position on slavery. As James recounts, "I knew I was dead asleep and dreaming, but I didn't know whether John Locke knew that." So they debate in his dreams, the famous philosopher from which America's "inalienable and natural rights" flow defending his contradictions. When Locke says, "Some might say that my views on slavery are complex and multifaceted," James counters that his positions are "Convoluted and multifarious." Locke says: "Well reasoned and complicated;" James says: "Entangled and problematic." Locke: "Sophisticated and intricate." James: "Labyrinthine and Daedalean."

The back and forth is virtuosic in a scene that will make you smile if not laugh out loud. At other moments, especially those involving James's evolution and the enslaved women inside and outside of his family, James is devastating. Eventually, the story crescendos to a paroxysm of violence that is simultaneously inevitable and shattering. That combination of moral philosophy, absurdity and tragedy is very Everett. But James's situation is so bleak, his character so flesh and blood so fully realized, his pain so visceral and poignant, that at times the farce and telegraphing of inside jokes can seem jarring.

Still, I'm not sure if that dissonance is truly a bug or a feature. In addition to addressing language and identity, James is very convincingly and movingly a book about two runaways' quest for freedom and the relationship between human beings that society says should not have any connection. James works shockingly well in all those dimensions. America's original sin and contradictions are his subject, and this riveting riff on a similarly complex American classic that even Toni Morrison called "this amazing troubling book" is his most challenging and maybe even his best canvas. With the previous high water marks of Telephone, The Trees, and Erasure, Everett has long been an American literary icon. But in the wake of an Oscar-winning adaptation, this time the world is watching. James expands the Everett canon in a way that will have to be reckoned with come award season.

A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.

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