Reviews — From the November 2015 issue

Lucid Dreaming

Two ways of looking at Percival Everett

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Half an Inch of Water, by Percival Everett. Graywolf Press. 176 pages. $16.

Over the course of thirty or so years, Percival Everett has written thirty or so books, most of them novels. A restless polymath with a knack for deconstructing genres, he has quietly built up one of the most eclectic and original bodies of work in American letters. There are quasi noirs, antiwesterns, retellings of Greek myths, and academic farces — plus four story collections, a few volumes of poetry, and a children’s book.

Mainstream literary fame has eluded Everett, or perhaps he’s the one doing the eluding. He rarely does publicity, doesn’t write reviews, and doesn’t read reviews of his own work; he is probably not coming soon to a bookstore near you. His novels tend to be both choppy and dense, with chapters broken up into one- or two-page scenes that are riven with philosophical asides, interpolations from outside texts, wordplay, classical allusions, self-interrogations, metafictional interjections, and the occasional photograph, drawing, mathematical equation, or semiotic square. A critic who felt like tossing out points of reference would be tempted to mention Laurence Sterne, E. E. Cummings, Jean Toomer, T. S. Eliot, the Jameses Joyce and Baldwin, and Melville’s The Confidence-Man. All of Everett’s work is, to a greater or lesser degree, satirical; much of it throbs with rage.

Erasure, first published in 2001 by the University Press of New England and reissued in 2011 by Graywolf Press, is a toxic polyphony. Everett eviscerates academia and publishing, two worlds in which it can be difficult to distinguish a circular firing squad from a circle jerk. Special contempt is reserved for the way African-American writers are quarantined by a popular audience that is mainly interested in shoring up liberal pieties and reinforcing racist clichés. (Asked by Bomb magazine whether Erasure is a protest novel, Everett responded: “Erasure is like describing a rattlesnake’s bite. Am I protesting rattlesnakes?”) The narrator is Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a writer of experimental fiction (hateful phrase) adrift in the horse latitudes of his career, whose bibliography is suspiciously similar to Percival Everett’s. Monk’s latest novel has just been rejected for the seventeenth time.

“The line is, you’re not black enough,” my agent said.

“What’s that mean, Yul? How do they even know I’m black? Why does it matter?”

“We’ve been over this before. They know because of the photo on your first book. They know because they’ve seen you. They know because you’re black, for crying out loud.”

“What, do I have to have my characters comb their afros and be called niggers for these people?”

“It wouldn’t hurt.”

Outraged by the success of a book called We’s Lives In Da Ghetto (probably a stand-in for Sapphire’s Push), Monk sets out to write the most cynical, exploitative, and irredeemable piece of ghetto-poverty porn that he can manage. The resulting work, which Everett includes in its entirety, is a novella called My Pafology. Monk asks Yul to submit it to publishers under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. The book gets a six-figure advance and becomes a bestseller. White readers and critics fall all over themselves to praise the “realism” of Leigh’s lurid and ludicrous tale.

Illustration by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Illustration by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Things come to a head when Monk finds himself on a committee that is poised to award a major literary prize to Leigh. If Monk allows the prize to go to My Pafology then he will do more than commit fraud: he will bestow the laurels of art on something that is not art, and the stamp of legitimacy on something that has none. Worse, he will endorse the racist fantasy of blackness that he was attempting to ridicule.

Everett explores similar themes from the reverse angle — and with significantly more concision — in a short story called “The Appropriation of Cultures,” from his 2004 collection, Damned if I Do. In the story, Daniel Barkley, a black musician living in South Carolina, is asked to play “Dixie” so often that he comes to enjoy the song — first perversely, then in something like earnest. He buys a used truck with a giant Confederate-flag decal.

Confederate sentimentality is the result of a profoundly blinkered sense of history, or else dog-whistle politics — a Venn diagram that’s often expressed as a circle. Barkley subverts the claim that the flag symbolizes “heritage not hate” precisely by taking it seriously: he encourages other black people to fly the flag, and performs “Dixie,” of his own volition, at the banquet of a black medical association.

Soon, there were several, then many cars and trucks in Columbia, South Carolina, sporting Confederate flags and being driven by black people. Black businessmen and ministers wore rebel-flag buttons on their lapels and clips on their ties. . . . Black people all over the state flew the Confederate flag. The symbol began to disappear from the fronts of big rigs and the back windows of jacked-up four-wheelers. And after the emblem was used to dress the yards and mark picnic sites of black family reunions the following Fourth of July, the piece of cloth was quietly dismissed from its station with the U.S. and State flags atop the State Capitol. There was no ceremony, no notice. One day, it was not there.

(Following the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in June, Graywolf posted the full text of “The Appropriation of Cultures” on its website.)

Crises of identity, language, and meaning are standard-issue for Everett’s protagonists. In The Water Cure, for example, the narrator is Ishmael Kidder, an embittered romance novelist who publishes under a female pseudonym. After Kidder’s eleven-year-old daughter is raped and murdered, he tracks down and kidnaps the man he believes is responsible for her death. He keeps this man (whom he sometimes calls W and sometimes calls Art) hidden in his basement, lashed to a plank of wood and surrounded by mirrors, so the man can see nothing but his own face. Emboldened by the depravities of the Bush Administration — whose members he loathes to a man, even as he follows their example — Kidder waterboards Art whenever he can get away from his agent, Sally, who has surprised him for a weekend visit, hoping for a look at his next bodice-ripper, The Gentle Storm.

And so my novels of romance, though they are hardly romantic, of untamed unbridled unmanageable lust and fervid, even indelicate, animal attraction (as if there were another kind) were what they were, no more, no less, pretending nothing and offering no apology, and as I wrote them, write them, to change tense in midstream or flow or river or current, I wonder . . . why can’t I pause in the sky, the god that I am, during some steamy removal of some hat or cape or bra and simply tell the lost and lonely woman who is reading [my novel] . . . that she should be attending to the fact that her beloved country is torturing people and breaking its own highly held laws and substituting capitalism for democracy as a system of government and raping the world, and how can I do this without seeming like a raving political pundit paid by political tools to promote some political position instead of simply being a man who is ashamed of his country and trying to offer a moral truth and do so without sounding naïve, which I no doubt am, but does that make me wrong? And it’s all rather silly, isn’t it? Because cynical as we are, jaded as we are, I sound naïve. Regardless of all truth, I am quite naïve to write this. But I am happily (and oh read this word ironically if you do nothing else) naïve.

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is the author of three books of fiction, including Flings, now available in paperback from Harper Perennial.

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