Percival Everett Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,196 words.)