Percival Everett’s Philosophical Reply to “Huckleberry Finn”

Percival Everett’s Philosophical Reply to “Huckleberry Finn”

Percival Everett’s novels seem to ward off the lazier hermeneutics of literary criticism, yet they also have a way of dangling the analytical ropes with which we critics hang ourselves. His latest novel follows the misadventures of a runaway named Jim and his young companion Huckleberry in the antebellum American South. As in another novel featuring those protagonists, Jim has fled enslavement in the state of Missouri, and Huckleberry, Huck for short, has faked his own death to escape his no-good abusive Pap. As in that other novel, the two are both bonded and divided by the circumstances of their respective fugitivity as they float together on a raft down the Mississippi River. As in that other novel, the narrator of Everett’s book is setting down his story as best he knows how, but—rather differently—the narrator here is not the boy but the man who has been deprived of the legal leave to be one. “With my pencil, I wrote myself into being,” Jim writes. The novel is titled, simply, “James,” the name Jim chooses for himself. In conferring interiority (and literacy) upon perhaps the most famous fictional emblem of American slavery after Uncle Tom, Everett seems to participate in the marketable trope of “writing back” from the margins, exorcizing old racial baggage to confront the perennial question of—to use another worn idiom—what “Huck Finn” means now. And yet, with small exceptions, “James” meanders away from the prefab idioms that await it.

What novel has borne the racial freight of American letters like “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a book credited with gifting us a national literature (not to mention a sense of humor)? Norman Mailer, rereading the book on the occasion of its centennial, wrote of realizing “all over again that the near-burned-out, throttled, hate-filled dying affair between whites and blacks is still our great national love affair.” A decade later, as Americans fretted over the educational value of a book busting with more than two hundred instances of the word “nigger,” Toni Morrison defended “Huckleberry Finn” ’s status as a classic. The novel’s brilliance, she observed, lies in how it formally reproduces the very racial dynamic it depicts. Jim enables Huck’s moral maturation; without him, Twain’s Roman has no Bildung. Jim’s freedom is “withheld,” Morrison writes, lest there be “no more story to tell.” “James” posits a converse narrative problem: from the perspective of Jim, a man undertaking a deadly quest for freedom, managing the needs of a pubescent boy amounts to nothing so much as an inconvenience. Jim’s worries for his own family, a wife and child he’s left behind in bondage, must be slotted into the spaces between the boy’s gabbing, his questions, his anxieties. Jim’s sentiment toward Huck is unruly in its ambivalence: he is simultaneously protective and resentful, both relieved and uneasy when the two are separated, which in Everett’s novel they often are. With the boy in tow, Jim is mobile but stuck. Writing himself into being means leaving Huck, and much of “Huck,” behind.

Since releasing his début novel, in 1983, Everett has published roughly a novel every other year in addition to dozens of short stories, essays, and articles, plus a children’s book and a half-dozen poetry collections. His fictional protagonists have ranged from ornery cowpokes to professors of esoterica. Much of his work is narrated in the first person, yet his “I” is often a fragmentary and destabilizing affair; in my favorite of his books, “Percival Everett by Virgil Russell,” from 2013, the identity behind the pronoun in question is twofold and indeterminate. Such mechanics have earned Everett a reputation as an “experimental” author, though that descriptor alone does little to disambiguate his eclectically proliferating œuvre. (As Everett put it in one interview, “I don’t know what avant-garde or experimental means. Every novel is experimental.”) He has cited Twain as an influence, and it’s worth noting that Twain, contrary to his canonization as the singular author of a singular American novel, also tried lots of stuff out, confounding readers of his time. As the longtime Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin has written, “Each time critics thought they had him pegged, Twain set out in a new direction.” Insofar as there is a consistent motif in Everett’s work, it might be what he himself has described as an interest in “language and how language works.” In his 2001 novel “Erasure,” which was adapted last year into Cord Jefferson’s film “American Fiction,” an author who has been told that his style isn’t “Black” enough spews out a novel of the ghetto to wide and lucrative acclaim. “Call it expediently located irony, or convenient rationalization, but I was keeping the money,” he says. (In no small irony, “Erasure” remains Everett’s most popular work.)

“James,” in a sense, reprises the same linguistic drag in reverse. Early in the novel, we learn that Jim’s famous eye dialect from “Huckleberry Finn” is, in Everett’s telling, a strategic form of code-switching: the enslaved have dumbed down their speech for the sake of soothing white nerves. When among themselves, they speak in a crystalline, learned English. (“Will that be an example of proleptic irony or dramatic irony?” one character asks, sharing a laugh with Jim behind the back of a white man too self-important to recognize himself as the butt of the joke.) In a droll early scene, before Jim flees, he schools his daughter, Lizzie, on how to address the Mistress, Miss Watson, about her cooking:

“But what are you going to say when she asks you about it?” I asked.

Lizzie cleared her throat. “Miss Watson, dat sum conebread lak I neva
before et.”

“Try ‘dat be,’ ” I said. “That would be the correct incorrect

“Dat be sum of conebread lak neva I et,” she said.

“Very good,” I said.

There is a didactic quality to this conceit that can grow a bit tedious. “Safe movement through the world depended on mastery of language, fluency,” Jim offers, as though the idea demanded a plainspoken explanation. But a fruitful tension arises from the possibility that Jim will unwittingly endanger himself by committing a “language slip.” On the run with Huck, Jim debates Voltaire and Locke while dreaming, including during a period of delirium brought on by a venomous snakebite. “You sho talk funny in yer sleep,” Huck remarks, a comical reminder that Jim was not the only character Twain endowed with dialect. (Fishkin, in fact, proposed that Twain may have borrowed from African American voices in developing Huck’s way of speaking.) But, as in other Everett novels, speech only gets a person so far; to get any proper thinking done, Jim must work out his ideas on the page. In a scene reminiscent of one in Twain, Jim suggests that Huck slip away for a while, in a feminine disguise, to scope the happenings onshore. In Everett’s version, the reprieve enables Jim to write, with a stick and some stolen ink, his first words: “My interest is in how these marks that I am scratching on this page can mean anything at all. If they can have meaning, then life can have meaning, then I can have meaning.

The story that follows dexterously summons the grand, stumping immensity of that “if.” In past novels, Everett has evoked (and chided) the wisdom of French language theorists regarding the instability and plurality of meaning. In “James,” he shows how nineteenth-century America (no less than present-day America) plays fast and loose with its most valued idioms—that is, race and money—and the material consequences, alternately grave and fortuitous, of doing so. What is the validity of a bill of sale, the novel poses, when any white con man can claim the nearest Black person as his own? Is there a meaningful difference between one lynching and another, when “seeing ten was to see a hundred, with that signature posture of death, the angle of the head, the crossing of the feet”? The cost of stealing a pencil exceeds monetary value; it may cost you your life, as Jim learns, though to be enslaved is to know precisely what one’s hide is worth. When, at some point, Jim notes the similarity between a “live slave” and a “dead runaway,” another character calls “bullshit.” Is it better to die free, or is that bullshit, too?

Everett mines the humor in such logical convolutions, though the book’s tone is more muted than that of his jocular novel “The Trees,” from 2021, which features its own spate of lynchings. In one scene, a “good master” lashes Jim until he passes out, and Jim comes to asking if he is alive. “I’m sorry to tell you, yes,” his companion responds. Among the departures from Twain’s text is a subplot involving Jim performing in a minstrel troupe and donning blackface alongside the white actors. He discovers that Norman, another performer in the group, is passing as white. Jim describes the motley crew: “There we were . . . ten white men in blackface, one black man passing for white and painted black, and me, a light-brown black man painted black in such a way as to appear like a white man trying to pass for black.” The farce works because, as Everett’s work has often shown, race itself is something of a farce. As James observes, “Never had a situation felt so absurd, surreal and ridiculous. And I had spent my life as a slave.”

“Erasure” draws its slippery epigraph from Twain: “I never could tell a lie that anybody would doubt, nor a truth that anybody would believe.” In “James,” the path toward freedom depends upon realizing the distance between how things are and how things are perceived to be. Appropriating a technique he learns from Twain’s famous hucksters, the Duke and the King, Jim teams up with Norman to enact a scheme of their own: Norman will (again) pose as a white man and sell Jim, then Jim can escape and Norman can sell him again, thus accruing them enough money to free family members who remain enslaved. They carry out exactly one transaction before things fall terribly apart. The story’s bloody, propulsive denouement includes a slave insurrection and a surreal trip into the bowels of a riverboat, where Jim and Norman learn the vital distinction between the ringing of four bells and seven. Jim, by this point, has lost the will to bite his own tongue. He tells Huck, when they’re reunited, “Belief has nothing to do with truth. Believe what you like. . . . Either way, no difference.”

Everett never gives the sense that James needs Huck, not like Huck, as he tells Tom Sawyer toward the end of “Huckleberry Finn,” needs his “nigger” Jim. And yet, like its predecessor, “James” finds surprising poignancy in the bonds between the pair, however burdensome for Jim the relationship may be. Jim cannot easily shake Huck off, for reasons that Huck, and the reader, discover by the story’s end. The boy may be a nuisance, but he is a huge, persuasive, affecting one. Everett, like Twain, has often been called a satirist, but “satire” is ultimately a limp and inadequate label for what Everett is up to with this searching account of a man’s manifold liberation. “How much do I want to be free?” Jim asks himself early in the novel. Huck won’t be of much assistance in answering that question, and neither will Twain, for that matter. ♦

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