The character Mark Twain named Jim first appears in the second chapter of Huckleberry Finn, “setting in the kitchen door” of the woman who owns him, nervously stretching his neck at a sound at the back of the garden and calling out in worry, “Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn’ hear sumf’n.” He settles back to listen, only he soon begins to snore, and the sound then creeps out in the shape of Huck and his friend Tom Sawyer. Tom wants to tie the man up “for fun,” a foreshadowing of the novel’s conclusion, but contents himself with taking Jim’s hat off and hanging it on a branch just above his head. As Twain tells it, or rather as he makes his narrator Huck tell it, Jim later claims that his levitating hat is a sure sign of dark magic. How else could it have gotten up that tree? Some witches have cast their spell on him, he holds, and ridden him as far south as New Orleans and beyond, until his back “was all over saddle-boils.”

Well, that’s one way to put it. Here’s another: “Those little bastards were hiding out there in the tall grass.” That’s how the boys are seen by the first-person narrator Percival Everett calls James, who in the opening sentences of this smart and funny and brutal novel sits out on the kitchen steps and scoffs at the job Huck and Tom are making of it all; the not-quite-full moon is behind them and “I could see them as plain as day.” Still, James knows that it “always pays to give white folks what they want,” and so he puts on the right voice and asks, “Who dat dere.” He hears the boys giggle, pretends to sleep, and feels Tom lift his hat. Then the little bastards run off noisily, and Miss Watson, James’s enslaver, steps out and hands him a pan of cornbread.

Did Twain’s Jim have such thoughts? Was he actually afraid of that sound in the dark, or did he too feign sleep and spin that tale about the witches as a way to please the white folks? Does he have thoughts and plans that the novel doesn’t recognize? Impossible to say. Twain’s Jim is a fictional creation, limited by the words on the page, and we’re never allowed to step inside his mind or to see him without Huck’s mediating presence. But if my questions seem nonsensical, they are also pressing, and there’s something more to Jim’s unknowability, something Everett makes us revisit and resee. We do recognize that Jim understands a great deal that Huck doesn’t, and we watch as he teaches the boy about kindness and honesty; Twain lets us see too that he’s much quicker in spotting the fakers and charlatans they encounter as their raft drifts down the Mississippi. Still, Huck’s limitations are for Twain a function of his age, and Jim’s biggest job is to help him grow up; he plays at best a supporting role in someone else’s life.

James is very different. Everett’s white characters still call him “Jim,” but he is James to himself and to every other Black person. He’s a man with a story of his own, one that immediately makes us aware of everything Huck does not and cannot know about the world around them. It shows us, that is, what James knows by virtue of being Black, and what Huck doesn’t see precisely because he is what’s called white. Though not only Huck, for it may be that Twain doesn’t see it either.

We’ve long since gotten used to revisions—rewritings, retellings—of classic novels. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea has become a classic of its own in providing a kind of backstory to Jane Eyre, and more recently both Michael Cunningham and Barbara Kingsolver have won Pulitzers for recasting Mrs. Dalloway and David Copperfield, respectively. I do not, however, know any such book that treats its source material so faithfully and yet so freely. James challenges Twain’s right to his own creation. It reminds us that he told “some stretchers,” and it gives its characters a life that seems to lift off the page.

Huckleberry Finn depends on Huck’s own voice, so knowing and ingenuous at once, and so fresh in its departure from the standard written English of its day. “Well, I catched my breath and most fainted,” Huck says, when he realizes that he and Jim are stuck on a wrecked steamboat with a gang of thieves, “but it warn’t no time to be sentimenteering.” James doesn’t chase that particular brilliance. It’s after something else, and its own linguistic conceit takes its readers behind the veil, showing them a world hidden from the novel’s pale-skinned characters. For when there’s no one white around to listen, Everett’s Black characters all speak the standard literary language that Twain avoids. Its register lies somewhere between Hawthorne and Howells, and it’s rendered without any orthographic attempt to capture an accent or idiosyncrasy of vocabulary or idiom, “little bastards” aside. You might even say they “talk white,” all of them, though James is the only one who can read, having taught himself while cleaning the local judge’s library. But when white people are around they speak in a deliberately parodic version of the language the semiliterate Huck might use himself.


Take that cornbread. Miss Watson has gotten the recipe from James’s wife, Sadie, but the old woman has added a few improving twists of her own that make it inedible. “I swear,” Sadie says, “that woman has a talent for not cooking,” and after a bite tells their daughter, Elizabeth, that she doesn’t have to finish it. Miss Watson is sure to ask her about it, though, and so the girl must be coached in what to say. She needs to master what James describes as the “correct incorrect grammar.” Dat be sum of conebread lak neva I et. She’ll tell the truth but tell it slant; Elizabeth has not in fact eaten such cornbread before, and the old lady will never know that the girl is laughing at her. But it would be dangerous for Elizabeth to employ her own language, and in one of Everett’s early chapters James holds school for the town’s enslaved children, showing them how to translate a complex thought into the simple terms that white people expect them to use. “Mumble sometimes,” he says, and remember that “the more they choose to not want to listen, the more we can say to one another around them.”

For many pages James tracks the course of Twain’s novel. James hears that Miss Watson plans to sell him and runs off, hiding on one of the Mississippi’s many islands while deciding what to do next. That’s where he teams up with Huck, who’s feigned his own death to escape the monstrous Pap Finn. Then comes their discovery of a house with a body in it floating downriver after a storm, and he tells Huck to “get on back in dat boat” and don’t look. A few pages later James gets bitten by a rattlesnake—here on the hand, in Twain on the heel—and quickly grows delirious, but he knows he won’t die of it, though “it was unclear whether I would be pleased about that fact.” Eventually they build a raft and set off downriver, meeting wrecks and steamboats as they go, and fetching up in the classic backcountry feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons. Later there’s the long (in Twain, overlong) encounter with two con men, one of whom claims to be an English duke and the other the long-lost French dauphin, the son of Marie Antoinette. James recognizes them for what they are but plays along, knowing that his safety depends on their finding him useful. Twain’s Huck, in contrast, believes that Jim pities them “ever so much,” and he describes Jim’s eyes as bugging out at their tales—in wonder, of course.

Yet no matter how closely James sticks to its source, there are differences on every page. Some are simple enough. Jim is offstage during Huck’s stay with the Grangerfords, and so in James those twenty-odd pages shrink to three. Or maybe I should say that there are moments in James when Huck is off on some other business, some job that Twain has set for him. At one point in Huckleberry Finn he dresses as a girl and goes looking for news; the corresponding moment in Everett shows James sharpening a stick and using some paper and ink from that floating house to write out the alphabet and then, slowly, his first words: “I am called Jim. I have yet to choose a name.” But even Huck can’t be trusted to know he can read and write, though there are moments when James does need to educate his companion as a way to protect himself. Early on Huck has rather enjoyed playing dead, with their whole town searching for his body. He’s stunned to realize that the coincidence of James’s disappearance and his own means that the man will be blamed for his death and lynched if he’s caught. That’s why they take to the river; the boy’s lark is the man’s necessity. He’s stunned as well to learn that James can be sold. “But you got a family,” he says—a fact that means everything, and nothing at all.


Even the famous scene in which a riverboat runs down their raft and the two are briefly separated reads differently here. In both books Huck pretends, once they are reunited, that his companion has only dreamed of that disaster. Then he feels guilty about it, but in Twain he has to work himself up to apologize, unable at first to accept that he has to “humble myself” to a slave. James, in contrast, knows that he’s fooling but plays the expected role, while wondering if he should feel guilty in turn for stringing the boy along and forcing an apology. Then he rejects his qualms. “When you are a slave, you claim choice where you can,” and the jokes of white people are an all-too-common occurrence. It’s a big moment for Huck in the novel that carries his name. In Everett it doesn’t have the same weight, and that’s precisely the point.

And James itself is without any sense of pleasure in the journey. I don’t mean the reader’s pleasure. That it offers in buckets, page after page of thrills and excitements, surprises too, right up until the end. No, it’s that James himself takes no pleasure in either the raft or the river. In both books they travel mostly by night, but there’s nothing in James’s story like Huck’s ecstatic account, in Twain’s chapter 19, of the dawn opening upon a long and lazy day. The two have landed, made camp, and set some trotlines for the fish that keep them plentifully fed; they’ve had a swim and then sit on the river’s edge to watch the daylight come:

Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull-frogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side—you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness, spreading around; then the river softened up, away off…and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up…and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun.

Nothing like that—but how could there be? The journey means something different to each of them. For James those days on the river are marked by the fear of being seen by the wrong person or saying the wrong thing, fears to which Huckleberry Finn gives little weight. He wants to get to freedom—he wants it for himself, and also in the hopes of buying Sadie and Elizabeth out of slavery. Twain scants that side of his character, and we don’t even know that he has a family until we are deep into the novel. In Everett’s book it’s one of the first things we learn. James is always conscious of the people he’s left behind, and he runs off in the first place because it still gives them a better chance of some future reunion, however unlikely, than they’d have if he were sold. But at every point, every deciding moment, James and Huck are forced to turn their raft downstream, to head farther south on what the historian Walter Johnson has called the “river of dark dreams.”1

Everett sees his predecessor’s limitations, the things Twain “was not capable of rendering.” Nevertheless he has spoken about how much he admires and even loves Huckleberry Finn, and says that in preparing to write he read it “some fourteen to fifteen times in a row. And I mean nonstop: I would finish the last page and go back to the beginning.” Then he put it away and didn’t look at it again. Its language was inside him—or rather an echo of its language. After I finished reading James I opened my own Twain and began to compare the dialogue, moments in each book when the man and the boy are both present and would presumably have heard the same thing. But they never really do. When they first meet the Duke and the Dauphin—we don’t learn their actual names—the former says, in Huck’s narration, that he’s been “selling an article to take the tartar off the teeth—and it does take it off, too, and generly the enamel along with it.” James hears it differently: “I was sellin’ this paste what takes the tartar off’n yer teeth. Works real good, too.” Then the man sighs and ruefully admits that it removes the enamel as well. And James is all the better, more psychologically acute, because it doesn’t simply reproduce such moments. For how often do any two people remember the exact same thing?

That faithful imprecision allows Everett to make this material his own, and soon after the Duke and the Dauphin show up James takes a hard turn away from the events of Huckleberry Finn. Some of its changes are simply an improvement. Those con artists are much more vicious here than they seem to Huck, but I still laughed harder with Everett at their attempt to do Shakespeare than I ever have with Twain. Much of James, though, takes us deeper into the capricious yet certain violence of American slavery. James asks a man called Young George to steal a pencil from his master, with which he continues to write out the story of his life, having found an earlier slave narrative in a pile of river-salvaged books and realized that such accounts are possible. Later he learns that Young George has been lynched for that theft. The price of his own freedom, even the freedom of his imagination, will be death for others. Then the Duke and the Dauphin have James chained up for the night, over Huck’s protests, and at that point the two are separated, in a way they never quite are in Huckleberry Finn. They will meet again and have much to say. But their real companionship is over.

Instead James is subjected to a series of masters, a picaresque journey in which he works for a blacksmith and then at a sawmill. He meets a slave who delights in getting other Black men whipped and a coal-heaver whose work has made him an automaton. He is beaten and blown up, almost drowned, and then moved to violence himself. As indeed is the country around him, for Everett has moved the action forward from Twain’s 1840s setting and made James’s last chapters coincide with the start of the Civil War.

The most intriguing of these episodes comes when he is acquired by the leader of the Virginia Minstrels, who needs a tenor and has heard James singing as he tries to hammer out a horseshoe. No matter that he is actually Black: they can white him up before they black him up, and he can even choose between shoe polish, soot, or burnt cork. Nobody in the audience will be the wiser, or so they think, until a white girl falls for his voice, and her father wants to touch his hair. The Virginia Minstrels were a real troupe, one of the first in which the entire company wore blackface, and its Ohio-born leader, Daniel Decatur Emmett, later wrote music for the Union Army. But one of his earlier songs was “Dixie.”

James’s stay with the Virginia Minstrels is short, and when he leaves them behind he steals the notebook in which Emmett has written down his songs. He wants it for its paper, to set down his own tale, and yet the tunes themselves stay with him, ones whose names many readers will recognize, like “Turkey in the Straw” or “The Blue-Tail Fly”—the minstrel past of the American songbook. Part of what makes James so much fun is the way Everett toys with such intertexts or allusions, as though challenging us to spot his sources. Huckleberry Finn isn’t the only one of Twain’s books in play here; I caught echoes of both Life on the Mississippi and Pudd’nhead Wilson, along with his quasi-autobiographical “Private History of a Campaign That Failed.” There are bits of Faulkner too, especially Go Down, Moses, in which a character is called Tennie’s Jim by the white people of Yoknapatawpha County and James Beauchamp when he moves north and founds a family. I heard the historian Edward Baptist’s impassioned The Half Has Never Been Told (2014) in some of the details of James’s enslavement, and also Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? (1993), her classic account of the way Twain used African American voices in crafting his novel’s language.

Still, let’s stick with “Dixie.” Years later Emmett reportedly said that if he’d known the uses to which the Confederacy would put it, he’d “be damned if I’d have written it.” Everett has picked at the song before, in a 1996 story called “The Appropriation of Cultures,” in which a guitarist in his native South Carolina, challenged to play it by some drunken fraternity boys, decides to do so slowly, tunefully, and as if from the heart. Pretty soon it is from the heart. That land is his too; he takes a stand and makes the song his own, and then he plays it for a Black audience as well; he starts driving a pickup with a Confederate flag in the window, and in short order both the flag and the song have lost their totemic power. The master’s tools have taken down the master’s house, just as James will write his own story on Emmett’s pages.

For some of Everett’s characters, though, that can backfire. He has always been interested in the performative aspect of race, and until now his best-known book was Erasure (2001), the source of the Oscar-winning film American Fiction, in which a little-read and conventionally bourgeois Black novelist decides, in a rage, to give the white publishing world what it wants. So he writes a tale of ghetto life, about which he knows nothing at all, assembling it out of clichés and contempt. Nobody will publish such a deliberately provocative piece of trash, he thinks, but the result confirms his own worst fears: the advance and the sales are huge, and the reviews strong. The joke is on him even more than it is on the editors who fall for his shtick and can’t tell one Black voice from another; I laughed at them all, and yet couldn’t stop thinking that my own amusement meant that the joke was on me as well.

But that’s how Everett rolls. He fools around with genre, and James is among other things both a neo–slave narrative and a historical novel, two forms that have characterized a lot of recent African American writing. There are also westerns and thrillers among his thirty-odd books, and none of them gives you much sense of what to expect from the next; most are in the first person, but that’s about all they have in common. So Much Blue (2017) combines meditations on art and adultery with a shaggy-dog road novel that recalls Charles Portis. Dr. No (2022) pays homage to Bond movies, but its title character is a mathematician who specializes in the concept of nothingness, and the book gives grammar a workout, with one double negative after another. Everett writes fast—James is his fourth novel this decade—and with a kind of furious bemusement. A small-press chapbook purports to be a manual for the management of slaves, with notes by John C. Calhoun, and the pastiche is all too believable.2

The Trees (2021) is atypically in the third person but entirely characteristic in its effrontery and nerve: a gruesomely funny and strangely fruitful revenge fantasy in which the descendants of Emmett Till’s murderers are slaughtered in turn, with the corpse of a mutilated Black man left beside their bodies in Money, Mississippi. A pair of Black detectives starts to investigate; cue Chester Himes, and also Charles Chesnutt when they seek the help of an old root doctor. They solve the case, but then copycat killings start up around the country, with ever-larger massacres of the children and grandchildren of the guilty. A comedy about lynching? Yes. But The Trees is also a twisted parable about writing, in which typing out the name of a victim is enough to ensure redress, as though poetry could indeed make something happen. Not that, for Everett, we’d be better off if it did.

Some of his earlier books fizzle before they finish, their premises unsustainable at novel length. James is different. In some ways it’s more conventional than many of them, with their deliberate dead ends and moments of purposeful irresolution. Even The Trees winds up with the detectives waiting for something to happen—they don’t know what, only that it will be bad. But Huckleberry Finn gives Everett an ending to work toward, and to avoid. Nobody is happy with Twain’s conclusion, the dull but jerky chapters in which his characters leave the river, and Huck is mistaken for Tom Sawyer and Tom for somebody else, and Jim is locked up as a runaway, and the boys hatch a plan to spring him—for the fun of it, because Tom knows all along that Jim has already been freed by the will of the now-dead Miss Watson. Some scholars have tried, it’s true, to make a case for that ending, seeing it as a satire on the self-serving intentions of do-good reformers, the kind who hope above all to be admired. Maybe, and Huck does have his doubts about Tom’s plan. Still, nobody ever looks forward to reading those lifeless pages. Nobody has ever quite made them fit the book’s earlier journey, and Jim in particular loses whatever depth Twain has worked to give him.

James solves that problem by ignoring it, by refusing to take its characters to the farm where Twain set his book’s conclusion. Late in the novel James stows away on a steamboat, having run from his latest master; then its boiler builds up too much pressure, the boat explodes, and he finds Huck in the water as well. Soon after he sends the boy off into his future, telling him, “You can be what you want to be.” Huck has the tools he needs to survive. James has other business, and it is time at last to turn back to the town where the book began, and to the wife and daughter he left behind.

His path will be long, his success improbable, and “it pained me to think that without a white person with me…I could not travel safely through the light of the world.” Travel he does, however, though he will not find Sadie and Elizabeth where he hopes to. There are deaths along the way, the graphically described killing of those who need killing, and then the kidnapping of old Judge Thatcher, a benign figure in Twain. He’s still a slaveholder, though, and what really scares him isn’t the fact that James now has a pistol but rather that his diction has changed. For James has stopped translating. He no longer speaks like a slave, and his command of English, with its thousand shades of irony, is more than a match for this feeble old man. We don’t know at the end of this book if Huck will light out for the territory, as the boy plans to in Twain. But that’s not where James himself is headed, and James gives him the conclusion he deserves.