Percival Everett has some serious fun playing with your expectations

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It somehow seems that Percival Everett, one of the most inimitable and distinct voices in contemporary American fiction, who was a finalist for some of the world’s most prestigious literary awards, is still largely unknown to mainstream readers. It is impossible to resist reading this fact in the symbolism of the publicity photo on the back of his latest novel, “Dr. No– an empty park bench. “It’s ‘Dr. No,’ it’s for nothing,” he explained recently, shrugging his shoulders, during a video interview.

The novel is an ancient hug about a mathematician, Wala Kitu, whose name translates to Nothing Nothing and who studies the concept of nothing. But there is more to the image of this bench than absence. It’s a visual gag, a provocation, an invitation to see something else. (Why the hell do writers put their pictures on books?) Reading Everett’s works is an invitation to see everything differently.

I spoke with Everett on Zoom, where his backdrop was a desk cluttered with books, string instruments and a conspicuous atlas of the state of Wyoming. Bearing in mind my own meager output – three books published in 16 years – I immediately asked him how he had managed to publish 33 books in 30 years, including novels, poetry and collections of short stories. “I don’t stress about anything,” he said. He admits he sometimes worries about the well-being of his family – his wife, writer Danzy Senna, and the couple’s two teenage sons – but he doesn’t sweat it while writing. “I mean, they’re just books,” he said.

Part of what he means is the opposite of how it sounds – that it is only the books that are close to his heart, rather than, say, fame and especially fortune. “Some people just want to make money writing,” he said. “I think they are crazy.”

Everett, who has been a professor of creative writing at the University of Southern California since 1998, does not tour or maintain a social media presence. He is grateful to his longtime editor, Graywolf, for sharing his priorities. “Nobody talks to me about marketing because I have glassy eyes,” he said. He doesn’t read reviews. While Everett’s long career, which began with “Southin 1983 makes him the writer par excellence, people who often interact with authors will recognize that this kind of talk also makes him the anti-writer.

If his dramatic lack of careerism is singular, so is the motivation behind his work. “I’m interested in ideas and try to find vehicles for them,” he explains. He once said, “I would like to write a book that everyone hates.”

In this he failed. “Dr. No” follows “Telephone(2020), Pulitzer Prize finalist, andTrees(2021), a gruesome, funny and deep murder mystery about lynching in the United States which was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. Although not a bestseller in its home country , Everett has a loyal worldwide readership and is particularly popular in France.There is an international company Percival Everett.

If you’re not a member, “Dr. No,” his 23rd novel, is as good an entry as any into the peculiar and peculiar world of his fiction, where a reader can take nothing for granted. “one of Everett’s notable influences is the English picaresque of the 18th century”Tristan Shandy”, which interests him not only for its “playfulness” but for its “blocking of the gratification of history” and even “the questioning of the notion of history”.

Everett’s best-known novel, “Erasure(2001), contains a surprisingly compelling satirical romance within a novel. “Telephone” combines a family tragedy about a geologist’s teenage daughter suffering from a rare degenerative disease that causes dementia with a plot about Mexican migrants clashing with white supremacists on the New Mexico border. Specifically, this novel was published in three different editions, with three different endings – with almost no outward sign of which edition was which. “The Trees” interrupts its turbulent plot with a long list of lynching victims in the United States.

While the unexpected always happens in Everett’s individual novels, the variety across the work is equally astonishing. His corpus includes thrillers and domestic fictions, dystopian stories and several westerns. Individual works travel between genres, often reversing them.

Everett was born in Georgia in 1956 and grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. His background is as varied as his writing, though the relationship between his biography and his fiction is oblique at best. He is a former philosophy graduate student, fly fisherman, carpenter and painter. He can play and repair guitars, he can castrate bulls, and he spent 12 years training horses in Moreno Valley, California. In fact, he links his experience with horses to his ability to write under all circumstances: A 1,200-pound animal calms down when excited.

Everett likes to say that “Dr. No” means “nothing”. Like much of his work, however, it could just as well be described as just about anything. The plot involves a preposterous revenge scheme and a wacky cast of characters while managing to explore the epistemology, friendship, obscene wealth, ethics, and assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

As always, it’s a slippery investigation into identity. Characters include “racially ambiguous” villain John Milton Bradley Sill; his white servant, DeMarcus; and a James Earl Ray jocular. The novel also includes a delirious mass unmasking scene. Hardly anyone in the book is who they claim to be, except for a one-legged dog named Trigo, the moral center of the novel. (“I have never seen an animal betray or lie to me,” Everett said.)

Another element of “Dr. No” that Everett readers will find familiar: a smart, lonely, melancholic black protagonist, content to live in his own mind until some mess comes knocking on his door to divert his The end of the novel is also pure Everett: chaos, inscrutability, fin. “You don’t really finish a story. You give up on a story,” he says. “Dr. No” actually continues a story – Wala Kitu first appeared 23 years ago as a baby genius in the novel “glyph.”

characteristically disrupting expectations, there’s one thing the book doesn’t talk about: “it has nothing to do with anything [James] Bond,” said its author.

While Everett makes few overtures to the general public, he almost always includes the element of universally agreeable humor in his work. In an early “Dr. No,” the antagonist threatens the beleaguered Wala Kitu with a visual flourish. “Sill tore up a paper napkin, but not completely, and put it on the table.” why he hasn’t finished the job, he replies, “I’m tired.

Of course, the laughs in Everett’s work are often double-edged. While he’s traditionally prickly about the label “black writer” – perhaps because it comes with assumptions that might not sit well with, say, someone who’s spent long periods in the mountains of New Mexico with only a horse for company – Everett links his humor to what he identifies as a particularly African-American aesthetic of irony. “Addressing oppression with irony is how people survive,” he said.

Other literary role models in this tradition, according to Everett, include the sardonic post-war novelist Chester Himes and Zora Neale Hurston, whose humor arguably established a school of criticism.

In what Everett calls an inversion of “nuclear stereotypes” of black people in American popular culture, “The Trees” opens with a white family being sent wild from Mississippi. The Bryant boys, ages 3 to 10, call their mother “Hot Mama Yeller, the CB handle she used when chatting with truckers late at night after the family fell asleep.” Their father, Wheat Bryant, can’t be said to be between jobs because he “had only held one job in his entire life, so he was between nothing.” Everett has heard that some white readers, men in particular, have taken it as “a personal affront”, but he seems deeply indifferent. Hurston and Himes would probably have loved it.

Everett also aligns the mix of wit and rage in his work with the social commentary of groundbreaking 20th-century black comic artists, naming Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory and Moms Mabley, whom he considers “the most underwhelming comedic talent.” -valued”.

Everett, while not exactly underrated, is certainly not as well known as he should be; obviously he’s too busy writing to care. When I asked how a reader should go from the violent heaviness of “The Trees” to the swashbuckling shenanigans of “Dr. No,” he said almost gleefully, “you should put one down and forget about it and read the following.

Asali Solomon’s most recent novel, “Afrekete Dayswas released in paperback last month.

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