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Percival Everett, the author of “Erasure” (the basis of the Oscar-winning film “American Fiction”), returns with a comic novel, “James” (Doubleday), that retells Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” through the eyes of Huck’s enslaved friend, Jim.

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“James” by Percival Everett

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Those little bastards were hiding out there in the tall grass. The moon was not quite full, but bright, and it was behind them, so I could see them as plain as day, though it was deep night. Lightning bugs flashed against the black canvas. I waited at Miss Watson’s kitchen door, rocked a loose step board with my foot, knew she was going to tell me to fix it tomorrow. I was waiting there for her to give me a pan of corn bread that she had made with my Sadie’s recipe. Waiting is a big part of a slave’s life, waiting and waiting to wait some more. Waiting for demands. Waiting for food. Waiting for the ends of days. Waiting for the just and deserved Christian reward at the end of it all.

Those white boys, Huck and Tom, watched me. They were always playing some kind of pretending game where I was either a villain or prey, but certainly their toy. They hopped about out there with the chiggers, mosquitoes and other biting bugs, but never made any progress toward me. It always pays to give white folks what they want, so I stepped into the yard and called out into the night,

“Who dat dere in da dark lak dat?”

They rustled clumsily about, giggled. Those boys couldn’t sneak up on a blind and deaf man while a band was playing. I would rather have been wasting time counting lightning bugs than bothering with them.

“I guess I jest gwyne set dese old bones down on dis heah porch and watch out for dat noise ‘gin. Maybe dere be sum ol’ demon or witch out dere. I’m gwyne stay right heah where it be safe.” I sat on the top step and leaned back against the post. I was tired, so I closed my eyes.

The boys whispered excitedly to each other, and I could hear them, clear as a church bell.

“Is he ‘sleep already?” Huck asked.

“I reckon so. I heard n*****s can fall asleep jest like that,” Tom said and snapped his fingers.

“Shhhh,” Huck said.

“I say we ties him up,” Tom said. “Tie him up to dat porch post what he’s leaning ‘ginst.”

“No,” said Huck. “What if’n he wakes up and makes a ruckus? Then I gets found out for being outside and not in bed like I’m supposed to be.”

“Okay. But you know what? I need me some candles. I’m gonna slip into Miss Watson’s kitchen and get me some.”

“What if’n you wake Jim?”

“I ain’t gonna wake nobody. Thunder can’t even wake a sleepin’ n*****. Don’t you know nuffin? Thunder, nor lightning, nor roarin’ lions. I hear tell of one that slept right through an earthquake.”

“What you suppose an earthquake feels like?” Huck asked.

“Like when you pa wakes you up in the middle of the night.”

Excerpted from “James” by Percival Everett. Copyright © 2024 by Percival Everett. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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  • “James” by Percival Everett (Doubleday), in Hardcover, Large Print Trade Paperback, eBook and Audio formats

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