JANUARY 23, 2012
OVER THE COURSE OF MORE THAN 20 BOOKS, Percival Everett has produced as rich a body of fiction as just about any contemporary American writer, but mainstream literary recognition has proved elusive. As an African-American writer deeply interested in the American West, and one with an experimentalist bent, he’s certainly no marketer’s dream. His books range so freely — from satire to absurdism, from realism to metafiction — that it’s difficult to get a fix on him. Then again, the same might be said of Cervantes, Sterne, or Twain.
Identity is the bedrock of the rational. Aristotle’s theory of identity holds that each entity has a specific nature. An owl cannot be a monkey; an elevator cannot be a marimba. Destabilize identity and the ground beneath our feet crumbles: We risk falling into madness. It’s no accident that Everett’s two variations on Greek myth, For Her Dark Skin (1990) and Frenzy (1997), bring readers inside the minds of Medea and Dionysus, those avatars of the irrational. Indeed, so thoroughly do his books complicate identity and undermine logic — in terms of both content and form — that they elude critical categories.
Everett’s new book, Assumption, begins as a standard crime novel, though anyone familiar with the author will know it’s unlikely to stay that way. The protagonist, Ogden Walker, a deputy sheriff in remote Plata, New Mexico, likes his job well enough, even if he’s not especially good at it. He’s bothered by the imagined disapproval of his dead father, a black man who didn’t care for police and generally despised white people even though he married one. Ogden’s mother lives nearby and is the only person outside of work who Ogden sees regularly. The narrator remarks, “It was hard for a son to think that his father hated half of him,” underscoring the internal split, or doubling, that becomes clearer as the narrative unfolds. Ogden “deeply love[s]” the New Mexican landscape yet feels “like a failure remaining there,” sensing there was “a life he was not pursuing.” Like many of Everett’s protagonists, Ogden comes to us burdened by the past, by others’ expectations, by accumulated disappointment and stress, and by an ever-sharpening sense of mortality.
Death figures in an abstract prologue that vividly conveys the Western terrain:
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.
The crimes Ogden investigates — murders, missing persons, drugs, hate groups — take him to Albuquerque, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Santa Fe, and Tempe, where Everett has fun with the retrograde Maricopa Sheriff’s Office. Oddball characters proliferate, often gloriously named: Lorenzo Pickler; drug addicts called Beetle and Meth-mouth; and, in a nod to Everett’s previous novel — the splendid I Am Not Sidney Poitier — Denver detective Hailey Berry (not the Halle Berry, she assures Ogden, who has no clue what she’s talking about). Ogden’s supervisor, Sheriff Bucky Paz,
was a big man with a belly round enough that the general belief was that his suspenders not only held up his trousers but kept him from exploding. He didn’t carry a side arm because he figured he was wide enough without one. He had once said to Ogden, “I can’t do anything about my gut, but there’s no reason to look sillier than god intended.”
This kind of self-deprecating humor also registers in Ogden’s shortcomings as a detective. When Detective Berry asks if he’s had any luck tracking down a person of interest, Ogden responds, “None. Of course, it’s only been a day. Give me a few hundred more and I’m sure I’ll just bump into him on the street.” As he’s confronting a suspect he’s just chased into an alley, a rat darts out in front of them and Ogden emits a “short scream.” Murders are rare in Plata, so when Ogden investigates a crime scene under a house (the corpse has already been removed), he lacks the benefit of much experience: “He squatted and looked around in the dark before switching on his little flashlight. The old woman’s impression was still in the dirt. He wouldn’t know a clue if it jumped up and bit him on his pecker.”
Everett’s prose style can appear unfussy, but it’s highly crafted. Seventeen novels on, he still doesn’t get enough credit as a stylist. After its brief, disturbing flash-forward prologue implies that the protagonist will come to a bad end, Assumption begins with this sentence:
Ogden Walker put his finger, a once-broken index that still held a curve, to the hole in the glass of the door through which two bullets had passed, a neat hole with spiderweb etching out and away.
On the surface it’s just a typical crime fiction opening, a point-of-view investigative scene that will presumably get the body count started, told with enough dependent clauses to pull readers in yet without breaking the genre’s promise of a brisk pace. Revisit the sentence after finishing the book, however, and you find its central motifs hiding in plain sight: the hole in the glass suggesting something missing, a void, while the spiderweb pattern “out and away” from the hole prepares us for the complex tangle awaiting Ogden: the mystery to be pursued, of course, but also a profound existential crisis. The surprising, uncanny detail of the two bullets passing through the same “neat hole” introduces the theme of doubling — of time, of space, of identity — as does Ogden’s “once-broken” index finger, an image of the way the past inheres in the present. “Index” — that which indicates — suggests order, but the finger still holds a curve, prefiguring disorder and casting doubt on Ogden’s ability to point toward correct conclusions. With this marker of false indications, Everett makes the first of many allusions to the novel’s loaded title.
Several of the novel’s characters take things for granted — assume — without sufficient proof. Mistaken identity figures prominently. Even the bereaved might feign their bereavement if there’s something to be gained, or hidden. As Ogden questions a drug-addicted prostitute, he tries to picture “what the woman in front of him would look like cleaned up and trying to fake her way through the world,” and it’s a sad reflection of his sense of himself as a fraud — and of the inauthenticity surrounding him — that he judges getting clean and faking it as practically synonymous.
Along the same lines, Everett’s formal playfulness leads readers to make all kinds of dubious assumptions. He takes enough pleasure in genre to signal some clichéd plot turns (a possible romance, a seeming femme fatale, the protagonist becoming a suspect and having to clear his name, and so on) that don’t play out, or else turn contrary to convention. He also teases readers with hints of the theological meaning of assumption, complete with a woman named Mary near the end; only later do we understand this as part red herring, part dark parody.
Our assumptions are also upended by the novel’s structure, whose three sections aren’t connected in any conventionally satisfying sense. Some readers may see the book as a trio of related stories (in fact, Everett has embedded a revision of his nearly 20-year-old story, “Warm and Nicely Buried,” into the first part). Many more may consider the book underdeveloped. Is Assumption even a novel? Well, it says it is right there on the cover, so clearly Everett intends us to receive it as such. So then why don’t the sections cohere? The key, surely, is to trust our experience while reading, but to go beyond our initial assumptions about narrative resolution and design. Shortly into the second section, we realize there won’t be any clear continuity with the first, and this fracture creates a feeling of confusion, perhaps even frustration. The process repeats itself more intensely as we make our way into section three, and then later in that section (titled “The Shift”) an abrupt point-of-view shift throws us even further off balance. Only gradually, as the extent of Ogden’s struggles becomes evident, do we realize that this sense of fracture has been the novel’s guiding form, as well as its subject, all along.
This beguiling blend of structure and theme is complemented by the book’s varying tone. Assumption shifts freely between the comic, the rueful and the disquieting until the ground gives way in the last 30 pages or so and we descend into nightmare. I finished the book a few months ago and am still haunted by its ending.
Everett’s deep and abiding interest in philosophy surfaces in references and extended passages throughout his work, sometimes dominating to bizarrely hilarious effect; Glyph (1999), for instance, is narrated by a hyper-precocious, Derrida-quoting infant. When the problem of identity emerges in an Everett novel, behind the scenes lurks a network of ontological anxiety and erudition, even in seemingly throwaway jokes.
Consider this statement from Assumption: “A lot of folks didn’t go to the bowling alley, because it was a bowling alley.” As humor, it works because of the description’s surprising redundancy (amplified by the hesitation-inducing comma). But Ogden, who feels like an imposter and whose work constantly exposes him to dissimulation, likes the bowling alley for its lack of ambiguity, for its straightforwardness: “It was what it was, that was all you can ask of anyplace or anything, Ogden thought.” Later, Ogden eats at a big city restaurant: “He ordered a burger with an enormously complex description and when it came it turned out to be a burger.” Here the joke (amplified this time by the absence of a comma, which hurries the reader toward the ironic anticlimax) works at the expense of pretension: A + xyz is still A. Expressed from Ogden’s point of view, it’s the sort of a wry observation common to Everett’s protagonists, who tend to find citified luxuries rather silly. Coming at this point in the narrative, though, even this simple adherence to the identity principle offers relief.
Consider the eponymous protagonist of I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Not Sidney is viewed not for who he is, but against what he is not — as indeed was the original, the movie star himself. Shimmering on the silver screen, his Bahamian accent expunged, Sidney Poitier was from the start a reflection of African-American pride and compromise, and of the wider culture’s hopes and fears. On the one hand, the name Not Sidney provides material for a running gag akin to Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine. On the other, the name marks an identity with its origins in a negative truth. There is, then, the unsettling, paradoxical suggestion of Leibniz’s principal of contradiction as the first positive truth: identity — in this case racial identity — without foundation, just an endless process of projection and construction.
When Everett’s fiction deals directly with race — even in that delightfully delirious collaboration with James Kincaid, A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, As Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid (2004) — this interest in the broader theoretical problem of identity is almost always somehow at play. Everett’s nonconformist approach to this topic is nowhere more evident than in Erasure (2001), which Graywolf Press has just reissued along with Assumption. Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, the semi-autobiographical narrator of Erasure, is a black novelist unwilling to give publishers the conventionally race-driven stories that make white reviewers rhapsodize about “authentic” depictions of African-American lives and can lead to invitations to daytime talk shows and lucrative movie adaptations. His name, of course, pays tribute to Thelonious Monk and Ralph Ellison, two of the most idiosyncratic masters of modernism (and as such, Everett’s kindred spirits).
As the novel opens, Monk’s latest manuscript has garnered 17 rejections, all along these lines: “The novel is finely crafted … but one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience” (italics in original). Meanwhile, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, a sensationalized debut novel by a suburbanite black woman passing herself off as a product of the streets, is gripping the nation. Monk finds the book aesthetically and morally repulsive. Tragedy strikes his family and Monk struggles to get his personal and professional life in order. One night he dashes off a bitter parody of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, titles it My Pafology, and sends it off under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh.
Everett had already shown himself a gifted parodist with his uproarious western, God’s Country (1994). My Pafology, inserted within Erasure, is a profane and very funny index of stereotypes scattered over a Native Son-like plot. In the opening scene, the narrator dreams of stabbing his mother:
[M]y baby sister starts screamin and I says, “Why you be screamin, Baby Girl?” And she look at me and she say it because I be stabbin on Mama. I look at my hands and they all covered wif blood and I realize I don’t know what goin on. So, I stab Mama again. I stab her cause I scared. I stab Mama cause I love her. I stab Mama cause I hate her. Cause I love her. Cause I hate her. Cause I ain’t got no daddy.
The primary literary target is undoubtedly Sapphire’s Push (1996), later made into the film Precious (2009). Everett also may have been thinking of Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever (1999), with its sisters named Porsche, Lexus, and Mercedes; My Pafology’s narrator has named his (illegitimate) children Aspireene, Dexatrina, and Rexall.
Monk never intends it to be taken seriously, but My Pafology becomes a critically acclaimed best seller, fueled in part by his undercover appearances as Stagg R. Leigh, his self-invented double (as My Pafology is Erasure’s double, and perhaps as Monk is Everett’s). Even as his cynicism grows, Monk feels implicated in what he’s spent a lifetime measuring himself against as an artist. Well before the idea of writing a parody occurs to him, he confides:
The … truth of the matter is that I hardly ever think about race. Those times when I did think about it a lot I did so because of my guilt for not thinking about it. I don’t believe in race. I believe there are people who will shoot me or hang me or cheat me and try to stop me because they do believe in race, because of my brown skin, curly hair, wide nose and slave ancestors. But that’s just the way it is.
Monk does not “believe” in race and yet he becomes entangled in its web, as created by everyone who does believe in it. A thing’s reality, whether or not it has a specific nature, is beside the point. What if subjectivity is all we’ve got?
Like Assumption, Erasure charts a crisis of identity, and each book reflects its crisis with a formal fracturing, Assumption with its unaligned sections and Erasure with its novel-within-a novel. Both Ogden and Monk are loners whose dead fathers left deep impressions on them, and both men look after their mothers (Monk’s mother suffers from Alzheimer’s). Ogden wonders whether he’s betrayed his better self by staying put in Plata as a sheriff; Monk feels he’s compromised his art and lost himself in the process. Both men seek refuge in practical activities enjoyed by Everett himself, activities whose straightforwardness stands in stark contrast to the uncertainties besetting them. For Ogden it’s fly-fishing; for Monk, woodworking. Here’s Monk, taking refuge in the concrete, his thoughts shot through with doubts that invoke both Plato and Gertrude Stein:
I considered my woodworking and why I did it. In my writing my instinct was to defy form, but I very much sought in defying it to affirm it, an irony that was difficult enough to articulate, much less defend. But the wood, the feel of it, the smell of it, the weight of it. It was so much more real than words. The wood was so simple. Dammit, a table was a table was a table.