Percival Everett’s sly take on ‘Huck Finn’ upends Mark Twain’s world

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In “James,” the author who inspired “American Fiction” tells a familiar story from a fresh perspective.

Samuel Clemens, who took the steamboating term “Mark Twain” as his pen name, knew the Mississippi was a deadly river to navigate. But it feels like a tranquil brook next to the tumultuous waters of American literature.

As many White Americans began to catch up with Huck’s respect for his Black friend, the book’s use of the n-word — more than 200 times — was increasingly intolerable. By the 1950s, some schools were expelling “Huck Finn” for its racial insensitivity. As late as 2007, it was still one of the 10 most challenged books in the country.

The timing may be accidental, but it couldn’t be better. Our barely United States is once again tearing itself apart over which books should be banned and how African American history should be taught. Meanwhile, “Academy Awards. What better moment for one of the nation’s preeminent authors to reconceive the nation’s central novel?Like Huck, you might think, “I been there before,” but the title, “James,” immediately suggests what Everett is up to with this subversive revision.

But the horror gathers gently in “James.” First, Everett moves to reorient these characters in his own moral landscape. “Those white boys, Huck and Tom, watched me,” James says one moonlit night. “They were always playing some kind of pretending game where I was either a villain or prey, but certainly their toy.”Notice, too, that voice. Rather than merely discard Jim’s dialect, Everett makes it central to the story.

 

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