In an age when writers are routinely advised to stick to one genre, promote themselves online and even, like car manufacturers and soda companies, build their brands, Percival Everett has consistently done the opposite. Over a career that has spanned nearly thirty years, he has published seventeen novels, three short story collections, three collections of poetry, one book for children and one novella. His interests have ranged from westerns (Wounded, God’s Country) to science fiction (Zulus), from retellings of Greek myths (Frenzy, For Her Dark Skin) to political satire (A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond). He doesn’t actively advertise himself or his work—he doesn’t have a website or social media accounts, for instance.
His latest novel, Assumption, was recently published to typically little fanfare. It reads, deceptively, like a simple detective story. Deputy Ogden Walker is investigating the murder of Mrs. Bickers, an old woman whose long-barrel .22 pistol he had confiscated earlier that day. The killer appears to be familiar with her house—she was found beneath a hidden trapdoor—but there isn’t a clear motive for the murder. Who would kill a woman like Mrs. Bickers? As far as anyone knows, she has no enemies. She’s not rich. And she lives in the “middle of no place,” as one character remarks. (The middle of no place is a small town in a “hick-full, redneck county” in New Mexico.)
There is only one item of value in Mrs. Bickers’s house: the deed to a parcel of land, where Walker will find dozens of holes in the ground—evidence that someone was looking for something. Then the bodies of four men are discovered, apparently smothered to death in the back of a stolen van. One of them was in a photo in Mrs. Bickers’s living room. To complicate matters, FBI agents turn up at Walker’s door to let him know that the man from the picture is one of their own, working undercover.
So far, so genre.
But in Everett’s hands, this murder mystery is complicated at every step by the assumptions that Walker and others around him make about murder victims, criminals and the police, and about race, religion and sexual orientation. Walker disarms Mrs. Bickers because she fired two shots through her door when she “heard a noise,” waking up the whole neighborhood. “Now you’re taking my protection away,” she says, echoing, almost perfectly, the periodic complaints of right-wingers in this country, especially after the election of Barack Obama. But what, or whom, Mrs. Bickers thinks she needs protection from defies her expectations.
Walker is not immune to baseless conjectures. When the body of one of the four victims in the van, a teenager named Jose Marotta, disappears from the funeral home, Walker wonders aloud if it’s because Marotta was a drug mule and the drugs had to be recovered from his stomach. (Once again, that assumption is disproved, in a surprising but satisfying way.) Even readers’ expectations about tough detectives in mystery novels are periodically challenged; Walker neglects to ask for the identification of a woman who walks into the crime scene and claims to be a relative of Mrs. Bickers. Instead, he offers her condolences and a place to stay while she’s in town.
As clues begin to pile up, Walker grows increasingly taciturn, not sharing his theories of the case with anyone. But he solves the mystery swiftly—almost abruptly—before being presented with another one. In the second part of Assumption, Caitlin Alison, a young Irish tourist, is looking for her cousin, a certain Fiona McDonough, last seen in the middle of no place. Walker’s investigation leads him to a remote cabin outside town, where he finds a woman who has been shot. It just isn’t Fiona. In the last mystery of the triptych, a fish-and-game patrolman named Terry Lowell is found dead, just a few hours after arresting a poacher, and the last person to have seen him alive is Walker. By now, however, the novel has trained its readers that no piece of information can be taken at face value. (I read this book on a plane, and when I reached its conclusion I gasped loudly, leading my seatmate to give me a suspicious look.)
Everett’s ability to play on readers’ expectations in Assumption hinges on his use of an almost objective third-person point of view, with a lot of scenes, some descriptions of past events or current action, but few insights into the emotional or psychological inner life of Ogden Walker. What we know of Walker comes to us in the form of a few paragraphs, placed mostly in the early parts of the novel. Walker is a native of the middle of no place, an Army veteran, and he works as a sheriff’s deputy because, well, he doesn’t know what else to do with his life.
His father, dead many years, would have disapproved of Walker’s job and would have called him a traitor, “a traitor to what would have remained forever unclear, but it would have been tinged with the language of race and social indignation.” Walker’s father was black; his mother is white. Walker also suffers from intermittent insomnia. To relieve his stress, he spends hours in the evening tying trout flies—streamers, grasshoppers, zug bugs—and imagining the fish he can hook with such bait.
As the mysteries unfold, readers are forced to take clues from lines of dialogue or descriptions of bodies in crime scenes, and interpret them in light of their own beliefs about the world, and about Walker. Those beliefs may well include beliefs about race, so that, before long, readers may wonder whether they see only what they want to see, what Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man called “only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Invisibility is a theme that Everett has explored several times before, particularly in Erasure, the best-known of his novels. Erasure is ostensibly a journal kept by Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an avant-garde writer and college professor, respectably published but not widely read. Monk’s latest novel, one reviewer says, is “finely crafted,” but “one is lost to understand what this reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians has to do with the African American experience.” One agent advises him that he could sell many books if he would “forget about writing retellings of Euripides and parodies of French poststructuralists and settle down to write the true, gritty real stories of black life.”
While in Washington, DC, for a conference of the “Nouveau Roman Society,” Monk goes into a Borders, a chain he despises, and decides to see if they have his books, “firm in my belief that even if they did, my opinion about them would be unchanged.” But his work is not stocked under Literature. Nor is it under Contemporary Fiction. It’s under African-American Studies, a catch-all category for any writer who happens to be black, regardless, apparently, of the subject matter of the book.
On his way out, Monk notices a poster advertising a reading by Juanita Mae Jenkins, the author of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, a novel whose film rights, Monk’s sister helpfully informs him, were sold for $3 million. The book is exactly what its title promises: a barely literate work filled with clichés and racial stereotypes. Jenkins is an Oberlin-educated middle-class woman, but she has decided to write about the “authentic black experience” after a two-day visit with distant family in Harlem.
Monk returns to Los Angeles, only to find out that his latest novel has received its seventeenth rejection because, his agent says, he’s not “black enough.” Monk asks:
“How do [the editors] even know I’m black? Why does it matter?”
“We’ve been over this before. They know because of the photo on your first book. They know because they’ve seen you. They know because you’re black, for crying out loud.”
“What, do I have to have my characters comb their afros and be called niggers for these people?”
“It wouldn’t hurt.”
Meanwhile, Monk’s sister, an abortion provider, is murdered; his plastic-surgeon brother announces that he got divorced and has lost everything; and his mother is diagnosed with dementia. Each of these developments is a kind of erasure, and in his own act of self-obliteration, Monk decides to write the authentic “black novel” everyone seems to expect of him. Under the pen name Stagg R. Leigh, he produces My Pafology, the memoir of Van Go Jenkins, a black teenager in a nameless ghetto. Van Go has four babies by four different women, saddling them with the names Aspireene, Tylenola, Dexatrina and Rexall. All ten chapters of My Pafology (numbered from “Won” to “Tin”) are included in Erasure.
Monk’s novel is immediately sold to Random House, published under a new, equally explosive title—Fuck—and showered with praise. Critics do not notice that the plot and characters of My Pafology are hackneyed, or that the language is a parody of the “authentic” black vernacular, or that the author’s name is a respelling of Stagger Lee, a murderer immortalized in popular song. Fuck becomes a New York Times bestseller and is chosen for the book club of an Oprah-like talk show hostess. “It’s the real thing,” says one of the judges for a literary prize called, simply and pretentiously, The Book Award.
That Erasure, the novel of Everett’s that deals most overtly with the subject of race, is his best-known work says more about critics’ and readers’ penchant for categories than it does about him. Satirizing the publishing industry’s fixation with racial authenticity is a central concern of Erasure, but the novel’s other merits have attracted far less notice. There is, for instance, its formal experimentation: a novel in the form of a journal, which also includes a full-length fictional novel. Three authorial figures hover over the narrative, each writing for a slightly different audience: Everett is writing a novel for an undefined reader; Monk is writing a journal for himself; Stagg R. Leigh is writing for editors, critics or judges—professional readers all—who can’t tell a parody from “the real thing.”
Erasure also includes the full transcript of the academic paper that Monk delivers at the Nouveau Roman Society, something that will perhaps be fully intelligible only to devoted readers of Roland Barthes. There are several transcripts, presented in italics, of imaginary conversations between artists (Rothko and Resnais, D.W. Griffith and Richard Wright) on topics such as aesthetics, politics and the intersection of the two. It is a testament to Everett’s skill that none of these interludes take away from the strength or pleasure of reading Erasure but instead lend the novel more texture and nuance.
Unlike the sort of book it satirizes, Erasure was published by a small press. It was eventually carried by chain bookstores, though it was sometimes shelved under “African-American.” And Everett was thereafter assailed with questions about race, perhaps confirming that a novel’s reception is often a matter of what its writer looks like. I was reminded of this when Deputy Walker tries to reassure a coffee shop owner he feels is suspicious of him. “It’s just a uniform,” he tells her, “under it, I’m just like you.”