Discussed in this essay:
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.
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.
Everett was born in 1956 and, like Barkley, grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. His father, also named Percival Everett, was a dentist, and his mother, Dorothy, worked in his father’s office. He majored in philosophy at the University of Miami and continued on to graduate school at the University of Oregon, where he studied Wittgenstein before leaving for Brown’s writing program. His first book, Suder, a comic novel about a black third baseman for the Seattle Mariners trying to jolt himself out of a brutal slump, was published by Viking in 1983. His next five books were on nearly as many small presses. In 1994, however, Faber and Faber published God’s Country, the first of Everett’s antiwesterns. Soon after, his editor at Faber, Fiona McCrae, left to become publisher of Graywolf, and he went with her. Graywolf has been his primary publisher ever since.
Everett has spent most of the past three decades in the West and the Southwest, where much of his work is set, and which he depicts with a familiarity and care equal to that of, say, Annie Proulx or Cormac McCarthy. He teaches creative writing and critical theory at the University of Southern California, and is married to the novelist Danzy Senna, with whom he has two children. Everett’s hobbies include painting, playing music, and training mules. An atypically personal biographical note on the Graywolf website mentions that he has fly-fished the West for more than thirty years.
His work has been widely reviewed, and if critical opinion has often been divided, well, the books themselves seem deliberately divisive. Alice Hoffman, reviewing Suder in The New York Times Book Review, wrote approvingly that Everett “knows the terrors of childhood, and his warm humor can be charming,” but argued that the book “does not always succeed . . . because the author is trying to do too much.” Outsized ambition has proven the most consistent and enduring assessment of Everett’s work, though some critics have felt this was grounds for praise rather than complaint. In 1999, David Galef celebrated Glyph’s “glorious excess” in its “sendups of everything from semiotics to military intelligence, deconstruction and cognitive psychology.” Roger Boylan, in a rave for the psych-out mystery novel Assumption (2011), wrote that
Everett casts his line, as it were, pretty far, and some of the things he reels in, along with a few red herrings, are weighty indeed: racism, anomie, disillusionment, the meaning (or lack thereof) of one man’s life — the American nightmare, in brief, at the end of the line. The settings, the protagonist and the eccentric and pathetic cast of characters will haunt you long after you close the book. I haven’t read anything like it since Georges Simenon.
Alan Cheuse, in a review for NPR of the existential and narrative ouroboros Percival Everett by Virgil Russell (2013), called Everett “one of the most gifted and versatile of contemporary writers,” before going on to pan the book itself. (“It’s never good for art when critical jargon takes precedence over narrative sense.” “TELL THE [Expletive] STORY!” Lack of expletive in the original.)
Everett won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the Believer Book Award in 2010 for I Am Not Sidney Poitier, which features a narrator named Not Sidney Poitier, a wealthy orphan who lives with Ted Turner (don’t ask) and is educated mostly by a revolutionary-socialist tutor. Not Sidney drops out of high school and buys his way into Morehouse College, where he takes a class called “Philosophy of Nonsense” that is administered by a sad-sack academic fraud named Percival Everett. Not Sidney’s ultimate goal is to make a pilgrimage to Los Angeles to visit his mother’s grave, but as soon as he gets outside of Atlanta he’s arrested for driving while black. Drew Toal, in The Rumpus, called it “the funniest book I read all year, if not ever.” I Am Not Sidney Poitier earned Everett a third award in 2010: the Dos Passos Prize, which is usually given to writers who, like Dos Passos, have been unjustly ignored.
I Am Not Sidney Poitier is Everett at his most accessible, and its reception was among the strongest of his career, but it hardly signaled a definitive popular turn. In short order he followed it up with Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, which — contra Cheuse — is a disjunctive masterpiece. Inconclusive, self-consuming, defiant of summary, and terribly, terribly sad, the novel is as self-aware as its title would suggest. Yet it has neither the exhaustive self-portraiture of Karl Ove Knausgaard nor the autobiographical coyness of Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti.
Percival Everett by Virgil Russell takes as its focal point the relationship between an ailing, mostly senile father and his adult son. It is a study in what it means to communicate (or fail to communicate) with someone whose identity is so bound up with your own that talking to him can be a way of talking to yourself. The novel is dedicated to Percival Everett père, who died in 2010, and who, one comes to suspect, is the Percival Everett of the title. This suggests that Virgil Russell — whose name combines Dante’s spirit-guide through hell with the analytic philosopher best remembered for Why I Am Not a Christian — is the stand-in for Everett fils. (This reading relies on the perhaps erroneous assumption that the father and son, who are never named in the text, are the Everett and Russell of the title.)
When the son visits the father, they relive memories and tell jokes, wrestling for control of the narrative and talking over each other, the way family will. Dreams, shaggy-dog stories, and plot threads multiply. Narrative does not so much progress as accrue. I thought of Ben Marcus’s introduction to The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, in which he recalls “other, better meanings of plot, such as: small piece of ground. In this sense, plot would refer to setting, the space in which a story occurs.” Plots are also, of course, apportionments of space in a cemetery. All of which feels appropriate for a book about the tenuous but persistent call of blood to blood, and the tedious obscenity of dying.
My father was depressed, it took no genius to see that, sitting there all day long in that room in what they call an assisted living facility, pressing his button and waiting for the orderly to come. . . . I was depressed too, seeing him that way, then leaving to live my own life far away, knowing his condition, knowing his sadness, knowing his boredom, and depressed because I could for days on end live my life without feeling the horror of his daily existence.
It’s a rare novel that can joke about playing “pin the tail on the narrator” and still end up bringing you to tears.
Everett’s latest book, Half an Inch of Water, marks another departure (his detractors might say a respite) from the highly kinetic absurdist mode of his novels. It is his first collection of short stories in a decade, and although the form does not always play to his strengths, it does save him from his worst excesses. His even temper here is in such sharp distinction to the willful scrambles of his longer fiction that if it weren’t for all the fly-fishing and horse training, you might not guess the stories and the novels were written by the same guy. (Here’s the Times Book Review again, reviewing his 1996 collection, Big Picture: “Mr. Everett uses a laconic style that sometimes seems to work against his characters’ eccentricities, but at others it feels perfectly apt, giving them a strangely appealing complexity.” To which this critic can only add: Yup.) The nine stories in Half an Inch of Water feel almost like haiku in their openness, and in their attention to the natural world. They are set in the nowhere towns, Indian reservations, and wild places of Wyoming — places from which Laramie looks like the city and Denver seems a veritable metropolis.
The first story, “Little Faith,” introduces us to Sam Innis, a veterinarian and tracker who will have a cameo in another story. Sam lives with his wife, Sophie, on the ranch where he grew up: “Love of the spread had been rubbed into him like so much salve, a barrier against whatever was out there in the world, a layer of peace.” The story is divided in two. In the first part, Sam and Sophie attend the funeral of Dave Wednesday, a ninety-two-year-old Native American man who was the oldest male resident of the nearby reservation by a significant margin. The funeral finds Sam ill at ease, as much on account of having to sit in a church as for the sad business conducted there. Soon after he and his wife get home, there’s a small earthquake, which does negligible damage to the property but deepens Sam’s disquiet. Still, he keeps his appointments for that afternoon, the first of which brings him to a nearby ranch to meet a man named Wes, who wants to know whether his mare is ready for breeding.
You know, you’re okay, Wes said.
Sam looked at him. How’s that?
You know, being a black vet out here. I have to admit, I had my doubts.
About what exactly?
Whether you’d make it.
You mean fit in?
I guess that’s what I mean, yeah.
Wes, I grew up here. Grade school. High school. I’ve never fit in. I probably will never fit in. I accept that.
Wes’s face was now blank. He didn’t understand. He was just a degree away from cocking his head like a confused hound.
Sam said, Thanks, Wes. I’m glad you think I’m okay.
That’s all I was saying.
I know, Wes.
In the second part of the story, Penny, a deaf Native American child, has run off into the hills, apparently frightened by the earthquake. She’s been missing for six hours, without food or water, and night is approaching. Sam lights out on a borrowed horse into “a hundred square miles of barren, desolate, arid hills, full of worthless ore and seasonal creeks that could flood in a blink.” He eventually finds Penny on a flat expanse of rock, surrounded by rattlesnakes that are taking in the last warmth of the setting sun. He retrieves her but in the process is bitten twice. He has a snakebite kit but knows it won’t be enough. “If only he’d been bitten only once, he’d probably be okay because of his size. But two bites, that was a different matter.” Too sick to bring Penny back, he builds a fire from creosote and sagebrush, and imagines that “the burning sage might cleanse him.” He fans it over himself “as he’d seen Old Dave do on many occasions.” Soon enough, Sam either passes out or drifts into a vision.
There was Dave Wednesday, younger than he had ever been while Sam knew him, sitting in front of a fireplace in a cabin.
You’re thinking you’re having a vision, aren’t you? Dave said.
Pretty much. . . .
Dave offered Sam a mug of coffee. It’s real strong, will keep you awake for days and days. You’re not a spiritual person.
That’s an understatement.
Yet here you are, hallucinating stereotypes.
Pretty much. Sam drank some coffee. It was actually rather weak, though it was too hot even to sip. So, how do I handle these bites?
You’re the doctor.
When Sam wakes up, “the fire had not died down at all” — an indication that little time has passed. And yet he no longer suffers nausea or chills, and the swelling around the bites is all but gone. Sam and Penny spot a shooting star in the sky, smother the fire, and start walking again; soon enough they are found by a rescue party. An incredulous paramedic concludes that Sam must have received two dry bites. “I’d play the lottery tonight, if I were you,” he advises.
From its title to its conclusion, “Little Faith” is structured as a conversion narrative, but it seems unlikely that Sam will emerge from the day much changed. After Penny is reunited with her family, he hugs her farewell and heads off on his own, waving away the paramedic and the others. His horse has cracked a hoof and will need to be walked carefully back to the road, which Sam insists on doing by himself. Still, some effect of the campfire experience lingers: “He was so confused. He didn’t know why he was not light-headed and nauseated and sweaty. Feeling healthy had never felt so strange.”
If Everett’s good country people are, on balance, less prone to full-blown existential freak-outs or psychic disintegration than his writers and intellectuals, it’s not because they’re less self-reflective. It’s because they are living lives they’ve chosen for themselves, far from the madness (social, political, and linguistic) of so-called culture. In “A High Lake,” an elderly widow named Norma Snow sees solitude as coterminous with autonomy, and fights to preserve both.
She hired a nurse to come by once every day to make sure she was still upright and not stretched out helpless on the kitchen floor. Norma wanted the nurse for no more than that. . . . For nearly eight years she had been alone with her horse and her thoughts. She liked that they were her thoughts. They came like a glacier, moving slowly, and like any glacier they were a tsunami of ice, surging, unstoppable. She had completed a catalog of the bird life on her place, with notes of songs and seasonal habits. She had finally read Proust and decided she did not like him, had decided the same about Henry James, had decided that Eudora Welty would have been her friend, and had come to think that Hemingway was not all that bad.
Norma’s preference for Welty and Hemingway over Proust and James may or may not reflect Everett’s personal taste, but it’s a good shorthand for the style — acutely reserved and regional, eschewing interiority and all forms of the baroque — in which Half an Inch of Water is written. It’s also a useful way to think about the difference between Everett’s stories and novels.
Almost all of Everett’s novels have a first-person narrator: a governing ego governed in turn by its fractured or frustrated attempts at self-definition. This perspective, more than anything else, is what Everett leaves behind in his short fiction. Only one of the nine stories in Half an Inch of Water is written in the first person.
Everett’s novels suggest that the self is a patch job, a cognitive illusion. It’s no surprise, then, that the shift to the third person in his short fiction feels like a kind of liberation, a sweet relief. And if the price of that shift is a loss of intimacy or immediacy, the reward is composure and lucidity — which, it turns out, are not the same as comprehension. You can see something clearly and still not know what to make of it, or even what it is.
In “Finding Billy White Feather,” a man named Oliver Campbell discovers a note tacked to the back door of his house. The title character, White Feather, is offering twin foals for sale and encourages Oliver to get in touch, though he’s provided no contact information. Oliver spends the rest of the story collecting contradictory accounts of White Feather: white people think he’s an Indian, while the Indians insist he’s a white guy, maybe some kind of fetishist or poseur. (White/Feather — get it?) The physical descriptions that Oliver gathers contradict one another, perhaps because nobody seems to have actually met the man, though everyone knows someone who has a complaint against him. The only thing Oliver learns for certain is that the foals were never White Feather’s to sell. Oliver finds himself in pursuit of a tall, short, skinny, fat, white Indian with black blond hair to whom, if he ever chases him down, he will have absolutely nothing to say.
Not every story in Half an Inch of Water is about misunderstanding and miscommunication. “The Day Comes” and “Exposure” both depict difficult relationships between fathers and their adolescent daughters. In each case an existential threat places life-or-death stakes on the protagonists’ ability to communicate. They must hear each other or die. Within the universe of these stories, speaking, listening, and understanding are all presented as activities possessed of inherent value.
Everett’s stories are his minor work, but they’re a fine introduction to his themes and obsessions — to pretty much everything about him, in fact, except his major style — and Half an Inch of Water is a very good book, arguably the best collection of his career. The lost, the absent, and the missing figure powerfully, which in turn means that hope, however slender, often takes the form of recovery or reconciliation. In “Graham Greene,” a 102-year-old Native American woman named Roberta Cloud asks a man named Jack Keene to find her long-lost son, Davy, who must be eighty, if he’s alive. The tribal offices have no records of a Davy Cloud, and even Roberta’s family denies that he ever existed. The photograph she gives to Keene turns out to show Graham Greene, not the British novelist but the Native American actor best known for his roles in Thunderheart and Dances with Wolves. Here’s Keene’s conversation with one woman on the reservation:
“Can I ask you a question?” Delores looked at my eyes. “Why are you doing all this?”
“I don’t know. An old lady asked me to do something for her and I said I’d try.”
“You could have said no,” she said.
“I suppose I could have. But I didn’t and here I am.”
“You must have hurt somebody along the way, I guess.”
“You must be guilty about something.”
I stared at her for a long few seconds. “Who isn’t?”
Perhaps the other Graham Greene is in the air, after all. Jack’s mission, in any case, is an utter failure. When he returns to give Roberta Cloud the bad news, he finds her on her deathbed, where, in her delirium, she mistakes Keene for Davy. She gets her reunion and says her farewell, while Keene is left uneasy, unsure whether his subterfuge has compounded or absolved his opaque, pervasive guilt.
Time and again in Everett’s stories, characters are brought to confrontations with the inexplicable, and sometimes with the ineffable. Surprisingly, when the wonders of the invisible world exert pressure on the visible one, its borders expand to include them, rather than contract under their weight. The supernatural does not supersede the natural; it supercharges it. In “Stonefly,” a fourteen-year-old boy becomes obsessed with catching an impossibly large trout in the river where his older sister drowned. In “Liquid Glass,” one lowlife pays another a thousand dollars to pick up a mysterious package from a bus station — with equally mysterious, and macabre, results.
And in “A High Lake,” Norma Snow’s morning trail ride leads her one day to a canyon where “the flowers didn’t make sense altogether, and the chickweed should have been long gone. . . . Then it occurred to her that the light was not changing, the sun was where it had been when she first rode into this place.” A dog appears, apparently her own beloved Zach, who’s been dead for years but has somehow been restored to a puppy. Norma gradually surmises that she is seeing a preview of the hereafter, emphasis on the “here.” Whatever else the place is, it is, first and foremost, a place. A place real enough that her horse can graze there. A place where, when she’s ready to leave, she can climb back into the saddle and ride home.