JANUARY 23, 2012
AFTER 12 YEARS of deconstructing novelistic forms, Percival Everett seems almost to play it straight with Assumption, a triptych of detective/crime stories framed as a novel about distorted memory, money, and murder. Assumption‘s protagonist, Ogden Walker, is a sheriff’s deputy in Plata, a tiny New Mexican burg. Unlike the leads in Everett’s recent novels, Walker is not a genius child (as in Glyph  and I Am Not Sidney Poitier ), not an underappreciated postmodern or vengeful romance novelist (as in Erasure and The Water Cure , respectively), nor is he a suicidal, underachieving professor who, after his beheading, returns from the dead (American Desert ). In fact, as a character, Walker never rises to any distinction. That’s purposeful: Walker is Everett’s central mystery among the unsolved crimes. He’s the classic accidental detective: He lives alone in a trailer; his mother is his main confidant; he doesn’t sleep much or very well; his only solace is in the artisan labor of lure-tying and his frequent fly-fishing excursions; he served in the military police, but couldn’t imagine more for himself than being back in Plata — the only black man in town. Like so many other detectives in novels of this type, Walker is finding himself in the process of his solving mysteries. But readers will say of Walker, as a Plata motel manager suggests to him rhetorically, “you’re not a very good detective, are you?”
Though Everett is an adept and accomplished postmodernist, he hikes over this familiar terrain and repeats its clichés unironically. Everett has also recently published his second collection of poems, Swimming Swimmers Swimming (2010). These new poems backlight the novel’s ideas, helping detail Everett’s narrative and linguistic aesthetic and offering some direction for understanding his choices in Assumption. Not all the poems in Swimming Swimmers Swimming dazzle. However, the strongest ones artfully demonstrate Everett’s fascination with American English’s refractive qualities — a trait Everett has inherited from Gertrude Stein, whose ideas about repetition in detective novels inform Assumption as well. Once a single trope or, character or narrative trait is iterated again, Stein argues in her lecture, “Portraits and Repetition,” “there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis.” In Assumption, Everett’s insistent use of standard detective/crime fiction situations disrupts readers’ expectations of the genre while emphasizing new meanings. We ought to see Everett’s recent poems, like “Rows,” for example, as concentrated, sharply crafted exercises on insistence and meaning. “Rows” springs from Stein’s canonical line, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” (repeated in many of her poems, including “Sacred Emily”). Here, Everett insists on Stein’s melodic concept, but reconstitutes the line’s contours thus emphasizing a different claim about language and meaning:
and the book
are the same
and the rose
are the same color.
like a rose
like a book
like the rose
like the color
like the book
like the meaning
like the rose
is like the
As Everett pushes his comparison through all the possible meaningful analogies, notice that he stops punctuating the poem, forcing his idea into a final long compound without closure.
Much of Swimming plays this seemingly repetitious juggling — statement, inversion, extension, and reversion — into a drone that never flowers with thorny meaning. In the poem “Libellule,” he explains that “whatever is repetition,/ is varied,/ modulated,/ is merely alienation of/ some meaning.” He pushes this point further in poems like “The Scope of Description,” where he presents the act of defining a proposition, wholly or partially, as elliptical. And in “A Novel,” a brief lyric that can be read as both a novel’s narrative and an understanding that the form is founded upon the author/reader relationship: “We had no ordinary meeting./ We were no less than two strangers./And no fewer.” In “Beautiful Equations,” he claims: “You can always find symmetry, / Symmetry will not, not always, not ever, find you.” Everett’s “symmetry” is a synonym for “meaning” — it’s something one finds by emphasizing all meanings possible when words, images, narrative frames, or character tics are repeated in a work. This is useful to consider when paging through Assumption because Everett wants, on one hand, to tease our desires, and, on the other hand, to disabuse us of our expectations for symmetry. We have to make the work meaningful. In Assumption Everett uses the New Mexican setting — the forests, the streams, the rivers, the canyons, the hills, the mesas, the snow, the desert — as a recurring motif. Readers first meet Walker in an untitled, prefatory scene. There, Everett establishes the protagonist and the landscape together, offering the work’s possible resolution in its beginning:
[Walker] thought about the desert around him, thought about water and no water, the death that came with too much water … To drown in the desert, that was the way to die, sinus replete with sandy water, dead gaze to dead gaze with rattlers in the flow. Ogden closed his eyes and thanked the desert wind that it was all over.
Everett’s realist/naturalist writing makes Walker a product of this environment. This is a common detective-novel trope, especially for the accidental detective: The protagonist divines his deductive prowess from his environs and yet he’s at the mercy of nature’s inevitably whimsical and deadly powers.
Walker is not philosophical, but Everett is. And he situates his protagonist/detective in a series of dialectical relations with the natural surroundings and with other characters, among them Bucky Paz, the sheriff; Warren Fragua, another deputy and Walker’s fishing buddy; Eva Walker, Ogden’s mother; and the femme fatales, Jenny Bickers and Caitlin Alison. These relationships help develop Walker as character and push the novel forward, but Everett also uses them to misdirect his readers.
When Walker must square off against Mrs. Bickers, the lead antagonist in the novel’s opening section, “A Difficult Likeness,” we imagine her a key figure for the full work. Responding to a call from her neighbors about shots fired from Mrs. Bickers’s house the night before, Walker has a “bad feeling about something but he couldn’t nail it down.” Mrs. Bickers is acting strangely during their early morning interview about the prowler she’d shot at and Walker wonders if it’s his blackness that has her uneasy: “though she had never said as much … he knew.” Whatever her problem with him, Mrs. Bickers reveals nothing, handing over the offending handgun, and Walker leaves. Moments later, however, Walker sneaks back into the house, his suspicions flaring, and finds that Bickers has disappeared. When she’s found dead several pages later, readers won’t be surprised, but they’ll be clueless. Then Jenny Bickers, the daughter, shows up; more dead bodies appear; two FBI agents arrive, investigating militarized white supremacists; and Everett begins turning his multiple screws into place.
Since the late 1990s Everett’s predominant mode has been comic (with potent measures of allegory and satire mixed in). His postmodern novels are best when the sentences swing with post-structuralist verve as they do in Everett’s hilarious and perfect 2001 novel, Erasure. Assumption isn’t humorous, though. Instead, it’s like The Water Cure, Everett’s novel about revenge and torture in Taos, New Mexico. Both narratives are violent — soberly and casually so. Though Assumption and The Water Cure aren’t fueled by the intense aridity or the simple binaries — Good vs. Evil — of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men, Everett sprinkles some McCarthian dispassion into both: Though readers don’t witness the acts themselves, the violence is stinging in its matter-of-fact and finite conclusiveness.
The works are also linked through one character, Sheriff Bucky Paz. In one of The Water Cure‘s brief fragments, the protagonist, Ishmael Kidder, has an exchange with Paz:
Me [Kidder]: Bucky, it sounds to me as if you’re encouraging me to break a few laws.
Sheriff: There’s the law and there’s the law. There might be a law against, it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. The law is just words after all.
Me: That scares me.
Sheriff: It should. It’s the American way.
Everett’s novels suggest that “there’s narrative and there’s narrative,” that stories are “just words.” He forces readers to interrogate his repetitions, designing, along the way, proofs that might make the iterations meaningful.
In “My American Cousin,” Assumption‘s second section, our expectations for the novel’s early mysteries are upended when we note that the novel’s seasons have shifted from winter to summer without explanation. Instead of hemming up the loose ends of “A Difficult Likeness,” Everett has Paz introduce Walker to Caitlin Alison, sending him to aid her search for a missing cousin, Fiona McDonough. When Walker and Alison find a dead person in the cousin’s last known residence, new troubles arise: the body isn’t McDonough’s. Then Alison, who presents herself as an Irish émigré, disappears and more dead bodies stack up. Walker travels from Plata to Denver, negotiating with Craigslist prostitutes, coordinating with a Denver detective named Hailey Barry (!), and getting abducted by a one-handed, drug-dealing pimp. After Walker escapes his kidnappers by impelling himself, hands still bound, out of a moving cargo van, he rushes back to Plata by way of Dallas. All of this so he can learn the true identities of the dead and missing. When this section closes, Walker, befuddled by the new murders and the unrealized plot, announces to his mother, “I just can’t wrap my mind around it. I guess it wasn’t about the money.” But if it isn’t money, then what’s instigating these crimes? Moreover, what’s binding these stories together as a novel, unresolved as they are?
Like the third period in an ellipsis, “The Shift” begins with Walker helping Terry Lowell, a game and fish patrolman, apprehend two poachers, Conrad Hempel and his 11-year-old nephew, Willy Yates. While Lowell arrests Hempel, taking him to jail, Walker escorts Willy to the sheriff’s office in order to find another family adult to pick him up. As soon as Walker steps into Bucky’s office to report his finding, Willy disappears from the station. Strangely, no one else in the office has seen the boy enter the building with Walker. When Hempel doesn’t turn up in jail and Lowell is found dead at the fishing reserve, it’s Walker, the last to see either man alive, who’s suspected of murder. Now, along with Willy, the only other possible eyewitness to his innocence, Walker must also find Lowell’s murderer. There are trips into foothills along dormant mining roads; there are canyon runs; there’s corroborating evidence against Walker; there are run-ins with meth users, meth makers, and meth dealers; and one flashing moment when Walker must “break bad.”
This is as far as I can go without revealing too much. Assumption isn’t an airline read or beach vacation novel; it’s a sturdy literary equation: The novel’s resolution will force you to reread the whole work, scrutinizing Everett’s use of detective novel clichés in order to chart the variations and modulations that alienate the novel’s meaning. Everett’s accidental detective, Walker, makes us realize that making or finding meaning requires elliptical exercises, and readers’ assumptions about the genre give way to new, pleasurable symmetries. What those particular meanings are, readers are left to find. As Everett suggests in the poem “Truth,” “Ontologically speaking,/ verification is a pipe/ dream anyway./ Reality is what it is what it is./ Meaning?/ That’s our job.”