About Percival Everett
I once told Percival Everett that of the impressive people it’s been my good fortune to meet, he is the least impressed with himself. His response was characteristic and delivered in a complete and sincere deadpan, “Well, I’ve met me.” This willingness to foreground the work over the artist is especially notable about someone who lives in Los Angeles, where, as often as not, being famous is more important than being good at something.
The quality, as well as the quantity, of Everett’s work continues to be extraordinary—nineteen novels and novellas, three collections of short stories, three volumes of poetry, and a children’s book, since 1983, when his first novel, Suder, was published. His fiction includes westerns, satires, revisions of classical mythology, and crime dramas, to the extent that his work can be classified generically. Much of his work has underlying it an intense personal interior quality. A couple of these latter dramas, particularly The Water Cure from 2007 and Assumption from 2011, may be described as harrowing at times, and require us to grapple with questions like how much bad can a good man do before he gives up his claim to goodness.
In his 2001 sketch, “Why I’m From Texas,” Everett traces his family lineage through Texas and Tennessee before making his way to South Carolina, the state in which he grew up. He claims to be from Texas because “it is really big. Because it has a coast. Because it has beautiful rivers. Because it has some of the most godforsaken land on this planet. It is nowhere near perfect, but it is large enough to swallow a stupidity the size of South Carolina’s and still have enough desert, mountains, and seaside to render it harmless.” This great passage is characteristic of Everett’s work. With the title of the sketch and repeated mentions of Texas, he pretends it is his primary subject, while drawing attention all the more to the inadequacies of South Carolina. Any rhetorician will recognize this figure as preterition or paralipsis, the emphasis of something by seeming to omit it. This trope of misdirection is in a sense how magic works. The audience’s attention is drawn to one place so that they might then be amazed by what happened where they were not looking.
Misdirection can be a very potent rhetorical strategy too, especially when you have, in fact, grown tired of talking about something. So when Everett says he doesn’t “discuss South Carolina and the confederate flag anymore because I’m sick of it,” you are initially encouraged to believe him. But he goes on to say, “Since telling the South Carolina State Legislature in 1989 that I couldn’t continue my address because of the presence of such a conspicuous sign of exclusion, I have not really considered South Carolina.” Except in a piece nominally about Texas that is more about South Carolina, of course. The magic trick works in at least one other way, since you can imagine the South Carolina State Legislators didn’t invite an African American writer into their midst so that he would make a point to them about their flag. So the trick is to be invited and agree to go, setting up certain expectations, and then, ta-daa. Paralipsis, anyone?
Misdirection requires movement, a sense of fluidity that is ever present and disorienting in Everett’s work. So, in “The Appropriation of Cultures,” a short story from his 2004 collection, Damned If I Do, a young black undergraduate from the University of South Carolina named Daniel Barkley comes to realize that as a southerner, he likes the song “Dixie” and that “the rebel flag is my flag. My blood is Southern blood, right? Well, it’s my flag.” When he turns up to buy a used pickup truck with a rebel flag across the back window of the cab from a couple of white Southern clichés, the couple are caught off guard by the combination of Daniel’s appearance and his request. As Travis, the husband, goes into his tract house to find the keys to the truck, Daniel can make out “the quality of the exchange between Travis and Barb, but not the words. He did hear Barb say, as Travis pulled open the door, ‘I couldn’t tell over the phone.’” Over the rest of the story, like Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men, Daniel Barkley gradually conjures a shift in his town and eventually his state. The story ends with the flag coming down from the state capitol building: “There was no ceremony, no notice. One day, it was not there.”
This is not Kanye West making the flag about Kanye West, and selling images of it, to boot. The story transforms the flag into the “black-power flag,” as Daniel starts to call it. “The Appropriation of Cultures” does not insist on our agreement with Daniel. The magic is, in fact, that agreement doesn’t matter. What matters—and what is so risky—is the opportunity to see differently an artifact so steeped in a very specific reading. This is not an unproblematic gesture. Perhaps the more intricate the trick, the greater the risk that many in the audience will be looking somewhere else at the moment of truth.
If we know where to look, though, we sometimes find in Everett’s words moments that help us understand what he is doing, once we can regain our balance. Take these two passages from his usefully titled poem, “Borrowed Mask,” from Abstraktion und Einfühlung (2008):
The only rule,
the only law
of genius, of imagination, of abandonment, of truth,
Not reworking, but change.
the influence being imaginary
at best, but isn’t that
The poem itself takes a strong stance in favor of what may be at the heart of Everett’s genius—change. The variety within his work prompts a continual challenge to anyone daring enough to try out one of his texts. To say nothing of his incredible paintings, which also create a sense of movement and fluidity. We know they are not moving, but we start to feel that they are. Or that we are. This is not paralipsis, by the way, but mere digression, unless we accept the assertion from his 1999 classic, Glyph, “there is no such thing as digression,” which I have only just started to understand…Where was I?
Oh yes, change. With his embrace of transformation, it’s no wonder that Everett took an interest in the relationship between the erasure of a painting and the sale of that erased drawing as its own work of art, as Robert Rauschenberg did in 1953 when he produced Erased de Kooning Drawing. Rauschenberg’s solicitation of Willem de Kooning to produce a drawing for Rauschenberg to erase makes an appearance in Everett’s 2001 satire, Erasure. As the very definition of art is put into motion, then, we realize at some point what we’ve been asked to think about all along, without necessarily realizing we’ve been asked.
Erasure is what I usually tell people to read first, whenever I’m asked where to start with Everett’s fiction. It may be read as an allegory for Everett’s own career, as it tells the story of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an African American novelist and university English professor, who writes novels that critics cannot appreciate because they are not “black enough.” As a protest against this widespread critical inadequacy, which finds its low point in the publication of and praise for a novel titled We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, Monk writes a novel that he initially titled My Pafology. As he introduces the novel, which appears in its entirety within Erasure, he says, “I wrote this novel, a book on which I knew I could never put my name” (62). Of course, the joke is missed by the same readers who praise We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, and his parody ends up nominated for an award.
As with any great art, there is no description that does it justice, and my précis is necessarily inadequate. Erasure features allusions to Invisible Man and Native Son, and is punctuated by snippets of conversation we would love to have been present for. De Kooning’s erased drawing makes its appearance. There is also a brief conversation between Derrida and Wittgenstein discussing a joke punning on the words “baroque” and “broke.” My personal favorite is:
D. W. Griffith: I like your book very much.
Richard Wright: Thank you.
The mere suggestion that Griffith might have liked Native Son levels a critique at Wright’s novel that leaves us not knowing where to look.
The question of where to look is central to Erasure. One of the many ways to read it is as a novel about authenticity: what authenticity is, whether or not it is possible, what it might cost us. As Monk thinks about his relationship to the image others have of him and other black Americans, he realizes how disconnected his reality is from the image. He lists cultural clichés conventionally attributed to African Americans, like “Chillin’,” “Dig,” and “Yo,” and then says he’d try to insert expressions like this into his speech, “but it never sounded comfortable, never sounded real” (167). The specter of authenticity haunts the novel from beginning to end, and in ways that extend far beyond considerations of race. Erasure’s negotiation of questions of authenticity without fixating upon race may be its greatest trick of misdirection. That critics and readers missed the trick is perhaps the big finish, as art imitates life as it imitates art.
Much of the critical attention that Erasure received focused on how the novel dismantled conventions of race in the publishing industry. But in making this point, reviewers and critics nevertheless made the book primarily about race, irrespective of the magician’s attempts. And, of course, I’m doing it now, if only for a minute, if only to make that point.
At the risk of becoming the magician who breaks the guild’s code by revealing how a trick works, Everett says in an address he delivered in 2006: “It is my job to create a world that you believe is real and to do it while you are aware that I am doing it and to do it while evidence of its non-reality is held in your hands, namely the object of the book.” In other words, everyone knows it’s a trick. The real art is to make the audience believe anyway, in spite of their knowing it’s a trick. The master stroke is to work to make sure the audience never forgets that a trick is being performed. It is this last master stroke that makes Everett’s work as mesmerizing as it is.
Maybe the ultimate magic trick for the African American magician to perform is to show that his art need not be “just” about race. Usually after teaching his 1986 novel, Cutting Lisa, I point out to my students that we were able to discuss a novel written by an African American writer for two or even three classes without discussing race. My students are then able to consider what “else” this African American artist has been showing them. From there, whole worlds open up to them. But the success of magic, like art, is beholden to an audience, and if that audience is limited, then the magic or the art may be missed.
The didactic bent of the critic is in a lot of ways antithetical or even irrelevant to Everett’s art, since this vocabulary is often inadequate to the challenge at hand. But no worry. The beauty of the challenge is in its movement, its persistent state of flux, the certainty of something that lies in the uncertainty that it creates. There is a great deal that is important in the challenge, irrespective of whether or not we are up to it. The real joy is being able to sit in the audience and marvel at the performance.
Anthony Stewart is Professor of English at Bucknell University. He has published articles on Ralph Ellison, Percival Everett, and August Wilson, and on representations of the African American male athlete, and is the author of two books: George Orwell, Doubleness, and the Value of Decency (Routledge, 2003), and You Must Be a Basketball Player: Rethinking Integration in the University (Fernwood, 2009). He has another book coming out with Fernwood this fall, entitled Visitor: My Life in Canada, and is currently at work on a critical book on the fiction of Percival Everett’s work, tentatively titled Approximate Gestures: The Infinity of the Between in Percival Everett’s Fiction.