Percival Everett Essay - Critical Essays


Percival Everett has developed a reputation for frustrating expectations with each new work he brings to the public. The experimental chances he takes in his writing make his novels difficult to classify and therefore difficult to publish through mainstream presses. Although he has made the shift to major publishers, he has been consistently published by the small, nonprofit Graywolf Press and maintains a relationship with his editor there, Fiona Macrae.

Everett’s first novel, Suder, met with success in part because it was readily identifiable as “African American” literature. The main character plays third base for the Seattle Mariners baseball team and embarks on a series of unlikely encounters during a dry spell in his career; Suder works in the tradition of the picaresque, and he is not unlike Charles Johnson’s protagonist in Middle Passage (1990). Everett readily acknowledges his debt to Laurence Sterne, and in particular to that author’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767), an eighteenth century classic considered by many critics as the first postmodern novel.

Critiques of Everett’s work often question his reconstruction of the dialogue around race. Novels such as Cutting Lisa and Frenzy contain no racial markers, and others, such as Glyph, Wounded, and Erasure, implicitly or explicitly challenge assumptions about race. The writing of Erasure, in fact, was partly motivated by Everett’s wish to respond more fully to what he regards as the narrow categorization of his fiction.

Everett also thematizes violence in his novels, sometimes in the form of dark humor and sometimes in more troubling ways. In Erasure, the narrator’s sister is the victim of random violence in the poor Washington, D.C., neighborhood she serves as a doctor. In Frenzy, the bloody rites of the worshipers of Bacchus are vividly detailed, and For Her Dark Sin incorporates the murders associated with the stories of Medea, including the murders of her children. This theme surfaces in Watershed and Wounded in the more traditional setting of the murder mystery, but even so Everett brings out the moral dilemma raised by the need for self-defense and revenge.

With each successive novel, Everett has changed paradigms; Walk Me to the Distance and Cutting Lisa in some ways fit the genre of the problem novel, featuring troubled characters struggling with their own violent natures. Zulus operates within the expectations of science fiction but bends those expectations. Everett revises the story of Medea in For Her Dark Skin and takes up the stories surrounding the god Dionysus in Frenzy. With Watershed and Wounded, Everett continues the revisionist reading of the American West that he began in God’s Country.

Despite Everett’s reputation as an iconoclast, each of the novels contains a recognizable narrative thread around human relationships; even Frenzy, which features a god as its central character, narrates through a character who is struggling to become human and to connect with the all-too-human worshipers and enemies of his master, Dionysus.

God’s Country

In God’s Country, a parody of the traditional Western, Everett pairs black scout Bubba with broadly drawn white rancher Curt Marder to set off on an eventful exploration of the myth of the West. Everett characterizes this novel as following in the tradition of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964) and E. L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times (1960) in terms of its manipulation of the conventions of the Western. The novel opens with the narrator, Marder, looking at the ruins of his ranch, which has been destroyed by “fake Indians.” This evocation of John Wayne’s role in the 1956 film The Searchers is quickly undercut by the encounters between Marder and...

(The entire section is 1653 words.)