In a nonlinear novel that asks what circumstances could push a law-abiding citizen to become a criminal captor and torturer, Percival Everett’s The Water Cure explores one father’s quest to avenge his daughter’s murder and to bring sanity into his suddenly insane life. Ishmael Kidder’s eleven-year-old daughter Lane’s body is discovered in a park by two schoolboys after she had been missing for two days. One minute Lane was standing on her mother’s lawn playing with her bike, and the next minute she vanished from her parents’ lives forever. The totality and the quickness of the act, as well as the fact that no one saw anything, causes a grieving father to contemplate: “And so a longstanding philosophical question was answered for me: if your child screams in the forest and there is no one around to hear, does she make a sound? It turns out she does not.”
Lane’s premature and brutal death elicits unquenchable desires for revenge. Lane’s rapist and murderer is apprehended, but he is released after questioning and later captured by Ishmael, who follows him out of the police station. The capture allows Ishmael to have his revenge, to which he confesses, “I am guilty not because of my actions, to which I freely admit, but for my accession, admission, confession that I executed these actions with not only deliberation and premeditation but with zeal and paroxysm and purpose, above all else purpose, that I clearly articulate without apology or qualification.” So opens The Water Cure, setting the pace for a thrilling and hypercerebral novel that explores unconditional love and hate, motivations for revenge, human thought processes, and the fundamental factors that determine one’s actions and communication.
The protagonist’s life has changed against his will, both through the death of his daughter and through the capture of her assailant, whom Ishmael refers to as Reggie or W. Ishmael no longer defines himself by the life he created for himself and his family but rather by determining the fate of the prisoner in his basement. Although he wishes that the man tied to a board in his house meant nothing to him, he reluctantly admits, “You are also, sadly, importantly, necessarily the existential proof of the sincerity of my so-called convictions, among other things. I believe it is true, and this might be one of the ills of our culture, that no judge among us really has the courage of his convictions.” As Ishmael slowly tortures Reggie mentally and physically, Ishmael changes from victim to perpetrator and transforms Reggie as well: “You were the sinner, but now you are the punished, someone new altogether. The question is, are you the same man?” The question can also be posed to Ishmael himself, although the reader might ask if there is any man left in Ishmael at all.
Ishmael, in fact, has lost all sense of self, for his former self died with his daughter. He lives alone in Taos, New Mexico, after divorcing his wife, Charlotte. He trusts no one, to the extent of bringing his own food to restaurants. Ishmael supports himself through the publication of romance novels under the pseudonym of Estelle Gilliam, further removing Ishmael from reality, but knows that “I simply am of course who I am, Ishmael Kidder, but I am better known as Estelle Gilliam, the romance novelist.” His agent, Sally Lovely, the closest semblance of a friend he has, visits Ishmael to review his writing (which has ceased) and to check on his well-being. She hears noises emanating from the basement that Ishmael passes off as the normal sounds old houses make. Satisfied, but still concerned for him, Sally leaves, and Ishmael is once again alone.
Of course, Ishmael is far from lonely. In addition to Estelle, his alter ego, and his captive in the basement, Ishmael has marijuana-induced conversations throughout the book with historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Socrates, Aristotle, and Samuel Beckett. Through these conversations, Everett sheds light on the motivating factors and beliefs that Ishmael relies upon to justify his actions, be they religious, cultural, moral, or legal. In one such conversation with Benjamin Franklin, Franklin asks Ishmael if he intends to kill his...
(The entire section is 1731 words.)