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James is a smart, kind, thoughtful and well-spoken gentleman --- when he is with other Black people. But when he’s around white people, he puts on the Hollywood version of a Black “accent” and tries to ensure that his true intelligence and character will not overwhelm the white person’s sense of superiority.

As in ERASURE, the book Percival Everett wrote that became the model for the film American Fiction, a Black man tries to give the public what it expects and seems to want. He doesn’t need to encourage anger or confusion from the people who are giving him a place to live and work, albeit at a decidedly higher price than they are paying for his services. JAMES is an easy-to-read, soon-to-be classic about an iconic novel that deserves to be revisited.

"Everett should be lauded for this daring and successful reimagining.... JAMES is a masterful and engaging work that should find a wide and hungry audience."

The recent trend of revising classics by telling the stories through the eyes of a secondary character holds great sway over the larger conversation of the American literary canon. Which of these books, with their outdated views and depictions of a life that civilization has moved on from, can be revived in such a way as to move back into the flow of contemporary discussion? ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN remains one of the most beloved novels of all time. By focusing on Huck, the run-amuck abused boy of the title, Mark Twain missed a chunk of the storyline that deserves expansion --- the actual life and thoughts of Jim, the man who is trying hard to maintain true freedom in the midst of the fake freedom offered to him after the Civil War ended.

Everett gives Jim many dimensions; he is not just a placeholder for others like him, but a man unto himself. His thoughts on not being allowed to be an intellectually astute human being in public and having to acquiesce to make white people think he’s not as smart as them (although he transcends the bigoted outlooks of all the white people around him) is so depressing. But it is a truthful rendering of what life would be like for men like Jim and their families and friends. And Everett places the microphone so close to Jim that even the most racist 21st-century citizen would get the point.

Shouldn’t Black characters in literature who had to suffer through having no agency due to a scarred political and social system be able to get their day in court, so to speak? With great humanity, Everett poses Jim’s life and his subsequent adventures with Huck as a high-stakes game. It’s higher than the original tome because we now see all that Jim has to leave behind and possibly lose by searching for a freedom that matches his sense of himself and how he hopes to shape it in the future.

By using Jim’s more formal name, JAMES ensures that readers understand that the man they meet in these pages will divulge an aspect of his life that Twain couldn’t in his narrative. As much as Twain tried, the interior monologue that Jim keeps throughout the book allows readers into a place heretofore unexplored. While Huck seems even more of a questioning, searching boy here, Jim becomes a more astute adult offering Huck real lessons about real life. It is beyond compelling.

Everett should be lauded for this daring and successful reimagining. Our creative cultural signatories give us so many reboots that don’t matter, but Everett has made sure that this one has a real point. JAMES is a masterful and engaging work that should find a wide and hungry audience.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on April 12, 2024

by Percival Everett

  • Publication Date: March 19, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385550367
  • ISBN-13: 9780385550369