Percival Everett’s ‘Dr. No’ book review



This year marks the 60th anniversary of “Dr. No,” the James Bond film that launched the world’s most indestructible movie franchise.

For fans of Ian Fleming as wealthy as Goldfinger, the tour operator Black Tomato is offering private adventures inspired by the Bond films. While racing across Europe in fancy cars, yachts and helicopters, you and your Miss Moneypenny could stop to ride horses at Château de Chantilly from “A View to a Kill” or lose a few million at the baccarat table in the Casino de Monte-Carlo from “GoldenEye.” Why not? You only live twice.

But readers who would prefer to celebrate this diamonds-are-forever anniversary with a less peripatetic adventure might turn to the latest novel by Everett … Percival Everett.

This new “Dr. No” parodies Fleming’s bombastic thrillers with a meditation on nihilism. That may sound like a dangerous mission, but Everett’s previous novel, “Trees,” is a brutal comedy about lynching. Clearly, nothing frightens this author. Which is the theme — and oft-repeated joke — of “Dr. No.”

Will Percival Everett’s 23rd novel finally bring him fame? He really doesn’t care.

Everett’s deadpan narrator is a 36-year-old Black man who is on the autism spectrum and goes by the name Wala Kitu. His first name is Tagalog for “nothing”; his last name is Swahili for “nothing.” (Longtime fans will recognize him as the brilliant baby narrator of “Glyph,” Everett’s 1999 satire of academia.) Now, as a distinguished mathematics professor at Brown University, Wala knows that nothing + nothing = nothing. In fact, Wala is the world’s greatest expert on nothing. He’s spent his career searching for nothing. “I have not found it,” he confesses. “I work very hard and wish I could say that I have nothing to show for it.”

It turns out there are more jokes about nothing than one could fit into a 22-minute “Seinfeld” episode. A lot more.

At the start of “Dr. No,” Wala is contacted by the African American billionaire John Milton Bradley Sill, a name which manages to invoke the great Renaissance poet and the great board game maker. (No, I don’t know why. Such flecks of cerebral silliness are one of Everett’s charms.) Sitting in a coffee shop, Wala realizes immediately that Sill is “certifiable, but jolly.” His backstory is steeped in racial violence: His father was murdered — collateral damage in the government’s plot to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. And Sill’s mother, a preschool teacher turned madam, was shot 12 times by a White policeman serving her for unpaid parking tickets.

With a passion ignited by rage and grief, Sill has dedicated his life to becoming “a cultural disease, an enemy of the system.” He tells Wala, “I want to be a Bond villain … the sort of perpetrator of evil deeds that might cause the prime minister to dispatch a double-naught spy to thwart me.”

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To prosecute his evil schemes, Sill needs Wala’s help. Inspired by “Goldfinger,” he wants to break into Fort Knox and steal a top-secret box of nothing. “How much power must there be for anyone who can possess nothing,” Sill says. He gives Wala $3 million to serve as his special consultant. “All you have to do is advise me. . . . I want your pure honest confusion.”

It’s an offer Wala can’t refuse, but he knows how dangerous this kook could be. “Nothingness is not emptiness any more than it is the absence of something, some thing, some things or substance,” he explains, bafflingly. “The actual Big Bang is coming, as what the universe came from is catching up to what it will become. To experience the power of nothing would be to understand everything; to harness the power of nothing would be to negate all that is.”

It’s only a coincidence in the quantum mechanics of literary fiction, but there’s some spooky action going on between “Dr. No” and two new novels from Cormac McCarthy: “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris.” Energized by the “endless nothing,” McCarthy’s books compress a great number of scientists’ names and esoteric terms under intense heat in hopes of creating a fusion reaction that will release tremendous profundity. Everett is no less sophisticated or grim, but the vibe of “Dr. No” is a lot less Werner Heisenberg and a lot more Pussy Galore. (When a sexy mathematician climaxes in Sill’s embrace, she screams, “Assume x is a Kähler manifold.”)

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Most of “Dr. No” is a goofy anti-thriller that revolves around Sill’s evil schemes and Wala’s halting efforts to thwart them. Yes, there are gorgeous robots, a devastating space laser, a pool of man-eating sharks under the dining room and lots of diabolical chuckling. But needless to say, Wala is no Sean Connery. He knows nothing. He’s never touched a woman. And forget the Sunbeam Alpine Series II. Wala doesn’t even know how to drive. All of which Everett exploits to parody both the Bond films and the bizarro world of physics and mathematics in the outer limits of reality.

Instead of Schrödinger’s cat, Wala has a one-legged dog named Trigo, whose condition and position are always known. “My dog met me at the door,” Wala says. “He had no choice. That was where I had left him.” The professor carries Trigo, or what remains of him, on his chest in a baby carrier called a Björn, which is not standard-issue equipment for super-agents.

This is all amusing. But having recently read “Trees,” which was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, I wish that “Dr. No” zeroed in on America’s racial environment with the same comic intensity. Defanged by its own silliness, this new novel merely hints and feints. The racially motivated murders that sparked Sill’s revenge fantasy quickly feel irrelevant. Near the very end, a side character notes how much Black people have contributed to America. “We have given everything to it,” he says. “I think it’s time we gave nothing back.”

The power of that point is greater than zero, but it comes buried in a bit of wordplay that we’ve already heard here dozens of times. It risks feeling flip, almost like nothing. The result is a story unlikely to leave you shaken or stirred.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

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