Percival Everett, author of 20 books to date, may be too brainy for his own good. Like Gilbert Sorrentino or Steve Erickson—two names familiar to every admirer of innovative, contemporary literature—his fiction resonates clearly, but only on the lower frequencies, just outside of the mainstream, commercial-publishing establishment. That’s not necessarily a complaint, as it seems like most of the best books published recently have come from indie and university presses. When Everett holds his philosophical concepts in delicate balance with compelling storytelling, as in Erasure and his new The Water Cure, he produces some of the most beautiful, erudite, and incendiary novels of our time.
Consider yourself warned: The Water Cure will keep you awake at night for however long it takes you to read it and likely for a significant amount of time afterward. The novel, part revenge fantasy and part treatise on ancient philosophy, details the emotional devastation of a father beset on all sides by trouble and tragedy. It is at times violent, blasphemous, crude, juvenile, indecent, hilarious, upsetting—and altogether captivating, so to speak, for those very reasons.
Ishmael Kidder, eccentric enough to bring his own food to restaurants, has made a fortune writing romance novels under an assumed name. He divides his time between California and a remote house, with no telephone, in the hills of Taos, N.M. He is also a kidnapper and torturer.
“I am on my way to New Mexico from Los Angeles, driving my car, the one I pay taxes on, California tag 5BFJ741. There is a body in my trunk. Put out an Amber alert, boys, there’s a body in a trunk. There is a live air-sucking saggy-shouldered woefully unslaked (in so many ways) hairy-knuckled droopy-scrotumed human body in the trunk of my car, which may or may not be worse than having a dead one in there.”
If you think Kidder makes an unlikely hero, please take into consideration that the man he kidnaps, transports across state lines, and ties up in his basement is responsible, or so he believes, for the rape and murder of Kidder’s 11-year-old daughter, Lane. The Water Cure takes the form of journal in which Kidder reports his wide-ranging thoughts. The terrible sadness is made all the more acute by an underlying dark humor. The text jumps around from Socratic dialogues with his prisoner to silly jokes to meditations on ancient philosophy and aesthetics to memories of his daughter:
“But if this rings like story and I say to hell with story, with plot, and with trying to suggest that I am making any kind of statement about any kind of thing, art included. Art is tied up down in my basement and will never again see the sun, will never smell a flower again, will never feel rain, hear the wind, touch a puppy or a child.”
The main topic of Kidder’s musings, of course, is what to do with his daughter’s killer. That moral quandary is what makes this book tick like a time bomb. He starts by torturing him, both by waterboarding and with more psychologically destructive means. At one point, he hangs mirrors all over the room so the prisoner is forced to see his own reflection everywhere he looks. “`When I hurt you, and I will,’ I said, my voice smooth chocolate, `I want you to see all these other people and wonder which one of you is feeling the pain, which of you is watching and feeling nothing.’” It’s all very disturbing, but the reader also is unable to look away.
To further complicate Kidder’s life, his literary agent, Sally, arrives to cajole him into finishing another moneymaking novel, but his artistic interests clearly lie elsewhere after the loss of his daughter. The tension mounts when Sally begins to question the strange noises coming from the basement. To make matters worse, a group of local drug dealers are diverting his water supply for use at their meth lab. With the tacit approval of the local law enforcement officer, he lies in wait for them with a shotgun, putting his own life in serious jeopardy.
To tell much more would risk giving away the ending, which is as revelatory as it is unexpected. If The Water Cure reads like the feel-bad book of the year, that’s only because of Everett’s insistence on looking critically at the world around him and telling it like it is. One of our boldest and most uncompromising authors, Everett is less interested in giving readers what they want—as Kidder does in his pulp-romance career—than what he thinks they need.