A story about a very good writer
Strictly speaking and I love to speak strictly, there are no utterances in the world but only sentences, cut off from the actual world by the beginning and their periods, question marks, or nothing but the fact that they end, cut off even from any real exchange between so-called speakers. Very Zen of me, indeed, in deed. Stay with me, son, there is no moral to this tale.
- Percival Everett by Virgil Russell
If you haven’t read Percival Everett, you are missing out one of the great novelists of our time. If you have read him, then maybe you understand why I would make such an audacious claim, even though I know damn well I haven’t read enough contemporary fiction to really back it up. If you haven't read Percival Everett, you are missing out on one of the greatest black writers working today. Yeah, I said it. Black Writer. African-American. Colored. Negro. Afro-American. Etc. Everett can obfuscate and complicate and subvert these designations all he wants, but to the extent there is such a thing as African-American literature, he’s one of the most important writers doing it.
A Percival Everett novel is never just about race, never limited to race, and certainly never traffics in simplified notions of blackness through urban or rural clichés. In fact, in his entire body of work one finds an ongoing meditation on all the sloppy, simplistic, lazy, and inevitable ways that we rely upon such racial signifiers. Sifting through his books, and the growing critical tradition around them, we find a writer who is committed to confronting, disrupting, and just plain fucking with conceptions of race at every turn. Or he might write about baseball, horses, woodworking, literary theory, and hydrology if he feels like it.
So I’m writing about Percival Everett as a black writer, and I’m telling you that he has known rivers, ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins – a thought that occurred to me while reading his 2011 novel Assumption. I’ve wondered about the persistent imagery of nature, specifically rivers, and fishing, and horses in his books, and I don’t just mean the obvious ones set in the American West. Vivid descriptions of the natural world, including bodies of water, appear in works as diverse as Erasure (a satire of academia and publishing), God’s Country (an actual western), Assumption (a mixture of the western and detective novel), and in books with titles like Watershed, The Water Cure, and Swimming Swimmers Swimming (the most recent of the two books of poetry that he has published).
The horses are easy enough to figure out. From listening to and reading interviews I’ve learned that Everett trains them, which would come in handy for a novelist who writes about the American West. It’s a hobby that bespeaks the rugged, individualist masculinity in many of his male characters.
But what about the water? From those same interviews I know he’s interested in hydrology. It’s an image system that he has deployed in several novels, an invitation to ponder the philosophical significance of the substance. Humans are made up of 70 percent water. The Earth is covered over with it, and it was essential in the evolution of life on this planet. Politically, it’s a substance easily taken for granted, and in the developed world that’s exactly what’s happened, which is why corporations are privatizing the hell out of it, California is running out of it, and why it won’t be long before opportunistic thugs (corporate and independent) will start hoarding and rationing it.
I also think of other African-American poets, novelists and critics for whom rivers (and other bodies of water) have significant meaning. In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Langston Hughes eloquently employed rivers as historical markers and metaphors for a black diasporic experience. Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother is about the West African coast, the Atlantic Ocean, the Middle Passage, and their importance in the production of a modern black identity, and part of a whole field of scholarship on The Black Atlantic. In Everett’s own The Water Cure he addresses the tortuous practice of waterboarding in our era of perpetual wars, counter-terrorism, and the horrific euphemism of “enhanced interrogation.” And in Assumption there’s the association of rivers with death and the loss of identity, hinted at in the book’s first pages, and culminated in its devastating conclusion.
And then, I flipped through his satirical academic novel Glyph, (originally published in 1999 and reissued in paperback by Graywolf Press last year) and stumbled onto this passage, nestled into a scene where the speechless, hyper-intelligent baby Ralph Townsend is about to be doused by a priest with holy water:
The water that is spirit, the water of all things, the water of tears, the water of blood, dream water, streams, and rivers where life begins, where things are washed, like Circe in that creek, that dreams like water, mixing with water, like water, the water that is a kiss, water, that drink, full of parasites, drink it only when it flows faster than you can walk.
Percival Everett has known sentences, ancient as the world and as thrillingly idiosyncratic as the ones in that excerpt from Glyph. He’s a master of the snappy detective fiction dialogue, but also writes in poetic flourishes, sentences at their shortest and sharpest, and sentences at their most circuitous and luxuriant. And in his more challenging work, like 2013’s Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, he’s daring enough to stretch them out to the brink of intelligibility.
One day there will be an Everett biography. He’s written nearly 30 books – novels, poetry, and short stories, with more on the way, including another story collection slated for this year, all of which amounts to one of the most complex, interesting bodies of work in American literature. Even if he had written nothing but Erasure, it would be worth prying into his papers to see what kind of life produced such a wickedly incisive piece of satire about a black “literary fiction” writer confronting the success of a street novel written by a black woman who he sees as a fraud. Nearly every critic who has written about Erasure speculates on whether the main character Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is a stand-in for Everett and his own indignation about the market for black writers.
Our prospective biographer will certainly have to confront Everett’s disavowal of just such connections. He’s savvy enough to know that interviewers and critics will ask about his own life and the lives of his characters, but he’s shrewd about rejecting these simplistic psychoanalytic readings of his work. Therein lies the riddle of Erasure. Like Monk Ellison, Everett is also a writer who whose work doesn’t always adhere to a legible Black Experience or try to solve All The Black Problems. And yet, Erasure, a work of racial satire, and probably the blackest novel he’s ever written, has turned out to be Everett’s most commercially and critically successful book.
Obviously there’s something going on in that book with the references to Ralph Ellison. (I believe Ellison also inspired the name of baby Ralph in Glyph.) Ellison is all over Erasure, including the narrator’s last name, and allusions to Ellison’s critical dialogue with Irving Howe, and the novel-within-a-novel based upon Richard Wright’s Native Son. Ellison’s argument with Howe (and others) was that Wright’s work, and the work of other black writers, was too often read by white liberal critics through the lenses of sociology, and rarely appreciated as art, in the way that those same critics would read novels by white writers. Re-reading a 2004 BOMB magazine interview with Everett (now collected in Conversations with Percival Everett) he sounds positively Ellisonian in his insistence upon the form and quality of writing over its service to political propaganda. In a way, Percival Everett is Ralph Ellison, except with 19 great novels instead of 40 years of writer’s block.
He thought about the desert around him, thought about water and no water, the death that came with too much water, flooding that carried mice and snakes and nests and anything else in its way. To drown in the desert, that was the way to die, sinuses replete with sandy water, dead gaze to dead gaze with rattlers in the flow.
I couldn’t help but notice a blurb on the back of the 2011 mystery novel Assumption, taken from a review in the London Review of Books, touting Everett as “America’s preeminent post-racial novelist,” a cringeworthy and inaccurate description of his work. There’s nothing post-racial about any of his novels, and definitely not Assumption. The thing about the term “post-racial” is that its temporal orientation is false. We’re not post-anything when it comes to race or racism. If anything, Everett’s writing is meta-racial – aware of the reality and construction of race, yet always written from the ironic, satirical or absurd perspective.
The prologue above is part of the introduction to Ogden Walker, deputy sheriff of Plata, a small town in New Mexico. Walker is the child of an interracial marriage, and the novel is littered with Everett’s usual sardonic commentaries on race. About Ogden’s deceased father Everett writes: “He’d moved to New Mexico from Maryland because there were fewer people and so, necessarily, fewer white people. He hated white people, but not enough to refrain from marrying one, Ogden’s mother.”
The novel begins with Walker investigating the death of an elderly white woman in the town, a woman who he knew hated him, probably because he’s black, but who was also cantankerous towards just about everyone in the town. Walker is the Everyman detective figure in the novel, and true to type, he’s clever, but not the most competent investigator either. The investigation of her death leads to a covert network of white supremacists with which the lady was somehow involved, and eventually leads Walker into a hilarious encounter with an old blind white supremacist in a nursing home, who spouts about his hatred of niggers while Ogden lets him blather on, only revealing his identity in a parting shot on his way out of the door.
The hijinks don’t stop with the old woman’s murder. The novel is divided into three sections, which some reviewers have described as connected novellas, but there’s a continuity that belies that description. Ogden’s investigations take him on to Dallas, Denver, and Kansas City, among other places. He looks into a prostitution ring and a secretive meth operation. There are more murders, people go missing, and then he ends up back in Plata, where he finds himself implicated in a crime and pursued by the requisite hot-shot FBI agents who’ve come to town to investigate the crimes and have been telling him all along he’s out of his depth.
“Assuming” is what the reader must do, about the protagonist, about the plot with the white supremacists, about the meth dealers, about Ogden’s relationship with his mother, about the Irish woman from Europe coming to look for her cousin who turns out to be anything but. We’re in a mystery novel, so you know things aren’t going to be what they appear to be. All throughout the novel characters lie about their identity, their affiliations and what they know about the people involved in the crimes. And without giving away the novel’s ending, we find ourselves having been in the company of an unreliable protagonist all along, and it ends with Ogden cornered and facing down the surface of a river.
Like the grizzled character played by Tommy Lee Jones in the Coen Brothers film No Country for Old Men (via Cormac McCarthy), Ogden is a small town lawman in a place where murders are rare who finds himself overmatched by heinous crimes he’s never seen before. But there’s something even more unsettling about how Ogden’s story devolves into a kind of madness that wrecks our faith in his innocence and incorruptibility.
Once again, our assumptions have betrayed us, and Percival Everett has a knack for making that happen as a writer, something he does with even more verve and invention in his latest novel.
PERCIVAL EVERETT BY VIRGIL RUSSELL
If there was no god and the argument for his existence was sound, then language was a great failure or deceiver or bad toy or good toy, that it could be wound up or twisted and if he knew that, that it could not be trusted, then he knew where to put it, how to view it, that it was there for his pleasure, that it was not pernicious, for how could a thing so twisted finally mean anything. Therefore, the lovely therefore, as the argument carried, not a good argument like the Ontological Argument, perhaps not even sound or valid, that he could become a doctor, be a husband, be a father, and rest, if not easy, but rest knowing that it was all a game, not some silly game, but a walking, running, tackling, blocking, dodging, hitting, hiding, sliding, diving game where everybody dies before they find out it’s just a game.
In a 2014 Los Angeles Review of Books podcast, Everett himself described this book as a game of “pin the tail on the narrator.” Here’s a novel called Percival Everett by Virgil Russell in which there are no specific characters named Percival Everett, or Virgil Russell. The narrator might be “Percival Everett” or it might be his father, or it might be someone named Murphy, or Lang.
Percival Everett by Virgil Russell is a challenging novel to read and write about, but for the right kind of reader, the challenge is more than worthwhile. It begins with a dedication to his father “For Percival Leonard Everett 1 August 1933 – 1 May 2010” and it’s safe to assume that the storyline about a man visiting his father in a nursing home is based upon their lives; as safe as it is to assume anything in Everett’s work. But that description in no way accounts for everything in the narrative. There’s also a story about a middle-aged married male painter, who one day meets a strange young woman who shows up at his house looking to be an apprentice, but who, it turns out, is actually there because she believes he is her long-lost father.
It’s also a book that has Nat Turner and Charlton Heston hanging out together at the March on Washington, and later playing backgammon on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the speeches and singing are over.
It’s also a book with three pages full of gerunds bracketed by a mathematical equation.
And yet, Percival Everett never devolves into complete formlessness. Its sentences serve to advance a story, whatever the hell it is, and even at its most self-referential moments there are the bare bones of story and character present, always narrative momentum happening.
At one point his father says, “Where’s the joy in saying anything flat out,” and this novel feels like the culmination of the linguistic games that Everett has been playing his entire literary career. It is a novel structured by the form of the novel, but interrogates that form at every level, from the construction of sentences, to the creation of characters, to the composition of a plot, to the experience of reading it – a daring and exciting experience if you are willing to go along for the ride and dispense with expectations of a conventional novel plot. Many readers aren’t willing to do that, and if so, this isn’t the novel for you. “How bizarre a reader you construct, because you do construct him, her, or it, don’t you?”
It’s the kind of novel that only a novelist with Percival Everett’s skill and experience could get away with, and pull off. In a moment when the future of the novel is constantly under threat, it’s a valuable meditation on what the novel means, and what it can do.
In an article in the black literary journal Callaloo, literary critic Joe Weixlmann (who also edited the Conversations with Percival Everett and maintains an online bibliography of criticism on Everett) gives one of the best explanations of the title:
The name Virgil or its Latin variant Virgilius appears there six times, where it is intimately connected to Dante’s guide through the Underworld in The Divine Comedy, and the surname Russell clearly has its source in Bertrand Russell, the twentieth-century language philosopher whose name is mentioned in passing as the co-author of the Principia Mathematica (1910-1913), a well-worn copy of which the dying father holds in his lap in the novel’s opening chapter.
This is Everett’s elusive way of telling a story about fathers and sons, about masculinity and manhood (a truly undervalued angle on his work that I hope the critics will pay more attention to). We know we are in the territory of something deeply personal, though it’s never completely revealed. The closest thing to a revelation is a passage that I imagine must have been adapted from the novel’s editor or another early reader of the manuscript: “Because all it is, all it ever will be, all it ever can be, is an effort at saying how much you love your old man. And a day late at that.”
Like Glyph, this is a novel saturated in theories of language. As Everett described Percival Everett in another interview: “…it comes out of Frege’s Puzzle, the problem that you have reconciling sense and reference. And so it’s really about that, about the things that can have the same name and not be the same thing. That’s not really helpful, is it?” Well, it sort of is. It at least gives us a tip toward understanding why there are three sections of Virgil Russell named Hesperus, Phosophorus, and Venus, the first two being names for the last. It’s about how literary theories can help us to see the arbitrariness of language (as “glyphs” if you will), and yet these symbols somehow “work” to make meaning, in literature and in the world.
I’m rooting for Percival Everett by Virgil Russell to move up the list in the Percival Everett canon, though I doubt it could overtake Erasure. Both books are obsessed with authenticity. Erasure is as popular as it is because of the way it addresses the politics of authenticity in black writing, but that’s just a launching point for Everett to explore authenticity in many forms, in art, culture, and philosophy, and in all that tiresome, tireless stuff about truth, identity, and the nature of reality.
What he has done, and what I believe the most important black writers are doing now, is expand the possibilities for black literature. It’s a shame that some of his work is out of print. Here I’m mainly thinking of the brilliant epistolary novel A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid, because it is one of his best performances on the absurdity and denialism of American racism, especially in the American South where he is from (South Carolina), and where I am from (Mississippi). There’s no better avatar for the vicious craziness of race in America than segregationist Strom Thurmond, who raped the 15-year-old girl who worked for his family as a maid, then paid her off and paid off the daughter that he fathered by her, keeping it a secret for decades while publicly preaching segregation as God’s holy plan. Thurmond is already a cartoon character on his own, and yet Everett manages to spin a madcap story out of this ludicrous, deadly life, all the while showing America its ugly true self sans all the patriotic bluster about exceptionalism, integrity and honor.
I’ll say it again, Percival Everett is one of the dopest black writers around. But go ahead and listen to him as he tells you otherwise, and while doing so understand you are hearing from the best kind of unreliable narrator. In that BOMB interview Everett was asked about his work being unreliable and responded: “Well, the world is unreliable. I’m just trying to give you the real thing.”