Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 988
Born on a military base outside Augusta, Georgia, and reared in Columbia, South Carolina, the child of Percival Leonard and Dorothy Stinson Everett, Percival Leonard Everett has since led the largely nomadic life of an academician. He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Miami in 1977, pursued graduate study at the University of Oregon, and earned an A.M. in writing from Brown University in 1982. Since the publication of his first novel, Suder, Everett has balanced a life of writing with a life of teaching, holding consecutive faculty positions at the Universities of Kentucky, Notre Dame, Wyoming, California (Riverside), and Southern California (USC), where he also became chairperson of the English Department.
Despite his southern upbringing, Everett, from the age of twenty, was drawn to the American West, where the open spaces and the sparseness of the population appealed to his need for privacy and autonomy. The climax, for example, of his popular first novel, Suder, is set against the Cascade Mountain Range of Oregon, where the protagonist, black baseball player Craig Suder, seeks refuge from a career slump and a failed marriage. Following a series of improvised adventures that read like the riffs of bebop jazz, Suder resists the attempts of others to define him and seeks, instead, to soar above the problems of life by taking self-propelled flight.
In sharp contrast to the essentially comic spirit of Suder is the more somber tone of Everett’s second novel, Walk Me to the Distance. Feeling displaced after his return from the Vietnam War, David Larson, the main character, drives west from his native South, eventually to find temporary work on a Wyoming sheep ranch. Passive participant in an impromptu lynching, and non-interventionist bystander to an imminent suicide, Larson accepts the often harsh demands of western self-sufficiency associated with the code of frontier justice.
As is true of the early careers of most writers, Everett draws on personal experience for much of the substance of his first two books. His part-time work as a jazz musician gave him the experiential background that informs the characterization, themes, and structure of Suder; his temporary stint as a hired hand on a sheep ranch provides the primary situation and setting for Walk Me to the Distance.
It can be argued, however, that Everett turned to his father’s background as decision maker, first as an army sergeant and then as a dentist, when he created the character of Dr. Livesey, the protagonist of his third novel, Cutting Lisa. Critics have compared Livesey to an Old Testament prophet, since it is the retired medical man’s radical patriarchal choice that provides the focus of the book. While visiting his son’s family on the Oregon coast, Livesey discovers that his daughter-in-law is pregnant with a child not her husband’s and independently decides to perform a kitchen-table abortion in order to preserve what he sees as the integrity of the family unit.
People taking unilateral responsibility for the world around them is also a prevailing theme in the fifteen very short stories in The Weather and Women Treat Me Fair. These tales are told in the same laconic style that marks all of Everett’s work. His novelistic reworking of the ancient tale of Jason and Medea, For Her Dark Skin, for example, is plotted in ninety-nine short chapters, each told from the first-person perspective of one of the principal characters. Some chapters are only one sentence in length. While some critics feel that the leanness of Everett’s prose undercuts the potential for emotional resonance in his narratives, others find that his terseness matches the often poetic blankness of his chosen landscapes.
Considering the concept of environment as an expression of identity, one is offered additional insight into Everett’s work. Perhaps initially because of the influence of his wife, the artist Shere Coleman, Everett began to paint what he refers to as “abstract expressionist oils.” Expressionism in painting as well as in literature involves an attempt to convey the outer manifestation of some inner state. In this regard both Everett’s narrative mode and his choice of setting can be said to serve as metaphors of his own fundamental belief about the nature of the world.
In addition, perhaps because of his undergraduate study of philosophy, Everett seems concerned with transcending the issue of racial identity by creating each principal character as a kind of Everyman. In fact, Everett, as an African American writer, has been criticized for choosing a white protagonist for Walk Me to the Distance and for devoting equal weight to black and white characters in his other narratives. Zulus, for example, is the story of a three-hundred-pound white woman who is the only fertile female in a post-thermonuclear war world; as such, she stumbles from one false sanctuary to another until she eventually falls into the arms of a black lover intent upon causing the final destruction of the planet. Everett’s Old West tale God’s Country features an interracial, two-person posse: the politically incorrect white rancher Curt Marder, who is seeking to find the men who burned his home, raped his wife, and shot his dog, and a black tracker named Bubba, who is reluctantly committed to helping the thick-headed Marder in his quest. Percival Everett has stretched the bounds of traditional African American literature to meet the demands of his own imagination.
In his highly acclaimed 2001 novel, Erasure, Everett speaks directly to some of his critics, to the publishing industry, and to racial stereotypes. The work is a novel within a novel about a classically trained, black academic writer who is criticized for not being “black” enough in his writing. He then writes an over-the-top, lingo-ridden “black” novel that becomes a best-seller. Erasure was universally praised, and Everett received the inaugural Hurston/Wright Legacy Award from the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation and Borders Books for the novel.
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