Percival Everett is one of those important black artist types who has zero swag in the black pop culture stratosphere.
His novels, most notably Erasure (2001) and I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009), have been widely acclaimed. But he doesn’t write mocha-dipped chick lit, like Eric James Dickey or the late E. Lynn Harris. He’s not a fire-breathing polemicist like Amira Baraka or Ishmael Reed. And his work is as far removed from street-inflected “urban fiction” as you can get without going all the way to, say, the Greeks.
His terrain, if one can call it that, is that of “literary fiction”, that place where writers explore their craft, engage their muse, and try to express their ideas in a manner that is at once technically and emotionally accomplished. Such works are often entertaining, but seldom conceived as entertainment. OK, it’s highbrow stuff, at least compared to the Terry McMillans of the world. He’s even a bit of an acquired taste, as would the likes of Matthew Shipp be to a casual jazz listener, or a Charles Burnett film would be to someone used to Hollywood fare. Suffice it to say that if you see an Everett title for sale in the ‘hood, be amazed, be very amazed.
This isn’t to say that Everett’s work is difficult, esoteric, or otherwise beyond the pale of blackness. It can be knotty to read at points, but that’s part of its charm. True, blackness is never far from the action. Race informs his characters’ lives: how they see themselves, the experiences that have formed them, the contours it has placed around their lives. But he’s more concerned with identity, how his characters bang their way (or not) out of their boxes.
His latest novel, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, is everything one would expect a Percival Everett novel to be. It’s witty, perceptive, chockablock with allusions to both philosophy and contemporary pop culture, and graced with long passages that capture the complexity of what his characters are thinking, even if most of us would never frame our thoughts that way.
It’s also, for the first 100 pages, tricky to decipher what’s happening. The perspective shifts frequently, from a son visiting his father in a nursing home to that same son visited by a mysterious woman who claims to seek an apprenticeship but turns out to have another agenda to a doctor treating his obese next-door neighbor (whose brother may have accidentally shot his horse) in exchange for vintage cameras to Nat Turner seeing his speech for the 1963 March on Washington – yes, that Nat Turner—mercilessly rewritten. But all these encounters weave back to the conversation between the father and the son, which invariably circles back to when the mother skipped out of the household when the boy was 13.
Things become clearer in the novel’s second section; while Everett’s writing is dazzling throughout, the story’s true momentum kicks in once the father takes over the telling of events. Now he’s talking about life in the home, the unlikely bond he and his fellow patients (although he makes it seem more like they’re inmates) achieve against the surly orderlies and indifferent pencil-pushers. Everett is at his most sardonic here, even as the father’s descriptions and accounts bestow some humanity and decency to the other residents.
The father continues in the third section, but now he is free-associating form the abyss, not recounting a tale. Everett incorporates photography here, as if abstracted images of natural landscapes can convey what the father is experiencing better than words can. By now, it’s clear what’s been going on all along, even as the father floats from the edge of consciousness, to singsongy nonsensical rhymes, to a final fleshing-out of the end of his marriage. The inevitable ending is poignant but not maudlin or mawkish; neither father nor son (nor Everett) would settle for cheap sentimentality.
That’s because both father and son (and Everett) are preoccupied with the details of things, both the tangible ones (like the type of key used to lock the home’s medicine cabinet) and the intangible ones. The latter would include the moments that define relationships – doctor-patient, husband-wife, father-son. It’s in the telling of those nuances that Everett tells us the most about his characters. And as the whole arc of the novel plays out, it’s the telling of those details, as well as the stories and story fragments and tall tales and other that populate the first section, that reveal to us the kind of lives both father and son have led.
Percival Everett the author eventually reveals Percival Everett by Virgil Russell as a pas-de-deux for father and son. But not just any father and son, so don’t come to this expecting life lessons or overarching summations or anything you can find on a greeting card or carry away with a bow on it. This is still a Percival Everett novel, after all, and such simple reductions are simply not what he does.
These are both essentially solitary, singular men, not archetypes. Yes, the father is sharing his final observations, the son is going along and chiming in, and life goes on. But the joy of this experience is not what Everett says, but the relish of seeing how he says it, through his prickly but sympathetic characters (not just the father and son, but the other voices we meet in the book’s first section). Some sentences go on for pages, others are brief but in foreign languages (including that of mathematics). All of them are of a piece – a voice reveling in life’s confounded complexity.
Everett dedicates this book to Percival Leonard Everett, who died in 2010 at the age of 77. Assuming that was his father, if this novel is the least bit indicative of how he viewed the world, then it’s safe to say that his son came by his most unique style and perspective most honestly.