American Desert, Percival Everett's fifteenth novel, opens with Theodore “Ted” Street on his way to drown himself. Ironically, Ted dies before he can kill himself. A UPS truck dodging a poodle with painted nails collides with Ted's car; Ted is decapitated. The plot progresses chronologically with startling, unexpected events. This irony produces a dark comedy.
Symbolically, on the third day after his death, Ted rises up from his casket at his funeral. Remarks from a preacher who does not know him and unflattering comments from his department chair precede Ted's revival.
Reactions to Ted's restoration vary. The chair and dean, never Ted's allies, suffer heart attacks and die. The congregation riots. Ted's family does not celebrate; they experience embarrassment and fear. Ted's wife selects her next husband. Society is more concerned with defining death than with Ted. A religious cult shows no compassion, calls Ted a demon, and captures him for execution.
Ironically, Ted remains decent in the decadence. He escapes the commune and returns to rescue the children.
Everett's figurative language and stylistic devices enhance the plot. For instance, Ted notes the approaching deadline for meeting requirements for permanent faculty status; Everett uses the metaphor of the “ticking of the giant tenure clock.” At Ted's funeral, Everett humorously describes how Rachel Ruddy, Ted's replacement, pepper- sprays herself out of the church.
Everett's characterization includes realistic diction and omniscience. Ted's explicit messages state 1) silence is as important as words, 2) death is not frightening, and 3) even flawed people can contribute to society.
The denouement is abrupt and closed. Ted removes the stitches from his neck, places his head on his lap, closes his eyes, and stays dead.