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Vulture Reviews Percival Everett’s “James”

Percival Everett Can’t Be Pinned Down

His masterful new novel, James, cements his status as one of our most idiosyncratic writers.

By James Yeh

In February 2023, the news broke that Percival Everett would be publishing his 24th novel, James, a retelling of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from enslaved Jim’s perspective, for an advance of more than $500,000. Some Everett devotees (myself included) wondered if, after years of inventive, philosophical, and absurdist work displaying a dizzying range — mute baby geniuses, nutty heist plots, post-westerns, and metacommentaries on race and publishing — he was finally selling out. After all, though Everett has increased in stature recently — he’s been a Pulitzer and Booker finalist for 2020’s Telephone and 2021’s The Trees, respectively, and his breakout, 2001’s Erasure, an incendiary publishing-world satire, was recently adapted into the comparatively defanged Oscar-winning film American Fiction — his books have not sold in great numbers. His subject matter can be eclectic. The cast of characters over his 35 books and counting includes an orphan named Not Sidney Poitier, a sociopathic rhino hunter who wants to turn the Grand Canyon into an amusement park, and, in multiple works, testy English professors named Percival Everett.

There’s also the matter of James’s great theme: a reinterpretation of the book that “all American literature comes from,” to quote Ernest Hemingway, a book that happens to tackle slavery. Slave narratives have long been one of the few Black stories the American public, historically speaking, has been interested in hearing. Was Everett attempting a highbrow version of what he satirized in Erasure, wherein the niche novelist deemed “not Black enough” for his obscure interests at last gives white people the “Black book” they want, a depiction of some legible Black misery that they can purchase, understand, and then congratulate themselves for having read?

Fortunately, the answer is “no.” James is far darker and more imaginative, tender, and sly than that, a testament to Everett’s ability to continually upset assumptions people might have about the kind of books he should write and how his characters, many of whom are Black, should behave. It’s in keeping with the scope of his work — formally adventurous, rangy yet unified, smart yet readable, funny, and subversive. His writing is often about getting free but not running away, and in James, that tension between freedom and bondage becomes literal. Read the full review at Vulture.

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