Percival Everett has serious fun playing with your expectations



It somehow seems that Percival Everett, one of the most inimitable and distinct voices in contemporary American fiction, who has been a finalist for some of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes, is still largely unknown to mainstream readers. It’s impossible to resist reading that fact into the symbolism of the publicity photo on the back of his latest novel, “Dr. No” — an empty park bench. “It’s ‘Dr. No,’ it’s all about nothing,” he explained recently, with a shrug, during a video interview.

The novel is an antic caper about a mathematician, Wala Kitu, whose name translates to Nothing Nothing and who studies the concept of nothing. But there’s more to the image of that bench than absence. It’s a sight gag, a provocation, an invitation to see something differently. (Why on earth do writers put their photos on books?) Reading the works of Everett is an invitation to see everything differently.

I spoke with Everett on Zoom, where his backdrop was an office cluttered with books, string instruments and a prominently placed atlas of the state of Wyoming. Bearing in mind my own meager output — three books published over 16 years — I asked him immediately how he had been able to publish 33 over 30 years, including novels, poetry and short-fiction collections. “I don’t stress about anything,” he said. He admits to occasional worries about the well-being of his family — his wife, the writer Danzy Senna, and the couple’s two teenage sons — but he does not sweat writing. “I mean it’s just books,” he said.

Part of what he means is the opposite of how that sounds — that it’s only the books he cares about, rather than, say, fame and especially fortune. “Some people just want to make money writing,” he said. “I think they’re insane.”

Everett, who’s been a professor of creative writing at the University of Southern California since 1998, does not tour or maintain a presence on social media. He is grateful to his longtime publisher, Graywolf, for sharing his priorities. “Nobody there talks to me about marketing because my eyes glaze over,” he said. He does not read reviews. While Everett’s long career, which began with “Suder,” in 1983, makes him the consummate writer, people who often interact with authors will recognize that these kinds of pronouncements also make him the anti-writer.

If his dramatic lack of careerism is singular, so too is the motivation behind his work. “I’m interested in ideas, and I try to find vehicles for them,” he explained. He once said, “I would love to write a book everyone hated.”

In this he has not been successful. “Dr. No” follows “Telephone” (2020), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and “The Trees” (2021), a gruesome, funny and profound murder mystery about lynching in the United States that was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. While not a bestseller in his home country, Everett has a loyal global readership and is beloved in France in particular. There is a Percival Everett International Society.

In case you’re not a member, “Dr. No,” his 23rd novel, is as good an entry as any to the particular and peculiar world of his fiction, where a reader can take nothing for granted. One of Everett’s noted influences is the 18th-century English picaresque “Tristram Shandy,” which interests him not just for its “playfulness” but for its “stalling of gratification of the story” and even “challenging the notion of story.”

Everett’s most widely known novel, “Erasure” (2001), contains a surprisingly compelling satirical novel within a novel. “Telephone” combines a family tragedy about a geologist’s teenage daughter suffering a rare degenerative disease that results in dementia with a plot about Mexican migrants confronting white supremacists at the New Mexico border. More to the point, that novel was published in three different editions, with three different endings — with almost no external sign of which edition was which. “The Trees” interrupts its hectic plot with a lengthy list of victims of lynching in the United States.

If the unexpected always happens in Everett’s individual novels, the variety across the work also astonishes. His corpus includes thrillers and domestic fiction, dystopian stories and several Westerns. Individual works travel between genres, often upending them.

Everett was born in Georgia in 1956 and raised in Columbia, S.C. His background is as multifaceted as his writing, though the relationship between his biography and his fiction is slant at best. He’s a former philosophy graduate student, a fly fisher, a woodworker and a painter. He can play and repair guitars, he can castrate bulls, and he spent 12 years training horses in Moreno Valley, Calif. In fact, he connects his experience with horses to his ability to write under any circumstances: “You can’t make a 1,200-pound animal calm by being excited.”

Everett is fond of saying that “Dr. No” is about “nothing.” Like much of his work, however, it could just as easily be described as about everything. The plot involves an absurd vengeance scheme and a cast of zany characters while managing to explore epistemology, friendship, obscene wealth, ethics and the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

As always, it is a slippery investigation of identity. Characters include the “racially ambiguous” villain John Milton Bradley Sill; his White servant, DeMarcus; and a jocular James Earl Ray. The novel also includes a delirious mass-unmasking scene. Almost no one in the book is who they say they are, except a one-legged dog named Trigo, the moral center of the novel. (“I’ve never had an animal betray me or lie to me,” Everett said.)

Another element of “Dr. No” that Everett readers will find familiar: a brainy, solitary, melancholic Black protagonist, content living in his own mind until some mess comes knocking at his door to hijack his life. The novel’s ending is also pure Everett: chaos, inscrutability, fin. “You don’t really end a story. You abandon a story,” he says. “Dr. No” actually continues a story — Wala Kitu first appeared 23 years ago as a baby genius in the novel “Glyph.”

Characteristically disrupting expectations, there’s one thing the book is not about: “It has nothing to do with anything [James] Bond,” its author said.

If Everett makes few overtures to the mainstream, he almost always includes in his work the universally pleasing element of humor. In one early “Dr. No” scene, the antagonist threatens the beleaguered Wala Kitu with a visual flourish. “Sill ripped a paper napkin, but not all the way through, and set it on the table.” When Kitu asks why he didn’t finish the job, he replies, “I got tired.”

Of course, the laughs in Everett’s work are frequently double-edged. While he’s traditionally prickly about the label “Black writer” — perhaps because it comes with assumptions that might not fit, say, someone who has spent long periods of time in the mountains of New Mexico with only a horse for company — Everett connects his humor to what he identifies as a particularly African American aesthetic of irony. “Approaching oppression with irony is how people survive,” he said.

Other literary models in this tradition, according to Everett, include the sardonic postwar novelist Chester Himes and Zora Neale Hurston, whose humor arguably created a school of criticism.

In what Everett calls an inversion of the “nuclear stereotyping” of Black people in American popular culture, “The Trees” opens with a savage sendup of a White family in Mississippi. The Bryant boys, ages 3 to 10, refer to their mother as “Hot Mama Yeller, the CB handle she used when she chatted with truckers late at night after the family was asleep.” Their father, Wheat Bryant, cannot be said to be between jobs because he “had held only one job in his whole life, so he wasn’t between anything.” Everett has heard that some White readers, men in particular, have taken it as “a personal affront,” but he seems deeply unbothered. Hurston and Himes probably would have loved it.

Everett also aligns the blend of wit and rage in his work with the social commentary of groundbreaking 20th-century Black comic performers, naming Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory and Moms Mabley, whom he considers “the most underrated comedic talent.”

Everett, if not exactly underrated, is certainly not as well-known as he should be; evidently he’s too busy writing to care. When I asked how a reader should move from the violent weightiness of “The Trees” to the cloak-and-dagger shenanigans of “Dr. No,” he said, almost cheerfully, “You should put one down and forget it and read the next one.”

Asali Solomon’s most recent novel, “The Days of Afrekete,” was released in paperback last month.

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program,
an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking
to and affiliated sites.

Source link

Leave a Comment