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Spring Books

Percival Everett Is Messing With You

The author of “Erasure” and “James” has spent his career running rings around his readers.

Percival Everett is a compulsive problem solver who doesn’t care much whether he ultimately arrives at a solution. As he told Paris Review seven years ago, “I start with something that bugs me, some philosophical problem, and then I look for a way to explore it.” Many readers and not a few reviewers have found this tendency exasperating, especially those who find Everett’s fiction inscrutably, even perversely, unresolved. Process is what matters most to him, and even if the jokes he tells don’t always carry a punch line, the poker face he maintains throughout the telling is transfixing. If you can hang with him, the open-endedness of Everett’s philosophical novels is an added dividend, if not a major attraction.

Come to think: Are they philosophical novels, or are they novels with philosophy in them? Don’t expect an easy answer, because such questions, whether raised by the author or the reader, are part of the point—and the fun—of Everett’s fiction. His novels are laconic and droll in tone, but that’s almost all they have in common with one another. He has, in jazz parlance, played changes on Greek mythology, as in 1990’s For Her Dark Skin, a witty rejiggering of the Medea and Jason story, and 1997’s Frenzy, an up-close-and-personal view of the wild man of the gods, Dionysos, as told from the perspective of his assistant, Vlepo. His 1994 Western spoof, God’s Country, was followed two years later by a more straightforward contemporary Far West–set thriller, Watershed, about minority activists, the FBI, and toxic waste. A small, narrow sample of a massive, wildly diverse body of work.

by Percival Everett
Doubleday, 320 pp., $28.00

A career academic in his sixties who’s taught English literature for decades at the University of Southern California, Everett is also an avid outdoorsman whose expertise in fly-fishing and breaking horses frequently emerges in his fiction. We got quite the anomaly here: a formidably intellectual cowboy professor, conversant in mathematics and semiotics, producing dry-witted, breathtakingly quirky novels at a rapid rate, as if he were a gunslinger from the Old West; the very notion of a Percival Everett is a reproach to conventional expectations of what an African American writer can be.

This seemingly haphazard disclosure of Everett’s Blackness here is my own (semi-ironic) way of calling attention to his complex, subversive, and even impudent relationship with the concept of race. Everett’s engagement with the subject—whether in the 2009 metafictional picaresque, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, whose lead character is actually named Not Sidney Poitier, or the 2021 zombie burlesque, The Trees, in which Black detectives investigate whether lynching victims are rising from their graves to wreak bloody vengeance—comes across as an inquiry into the nature of identity itself. Put simply, racial identity by itself isn’t as problematic as the language used and the expectations imposed to define identity, racial or otherwise. Think of how Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of Everett’s intellectual touchstones, asserted that misconceptions in language were at the bottom of most philosophical problems, and you can begin to understand, maybe even endorse, Everett’s take on Blackness, or “Blackness.”

To pluck one example among many: Glyph, his tour de force from 1999, which is told from the point of view of a Black infant boy named Ralph with an IQ of 475 (!). He can’t speak, but his tiny hands can write up a storm and his brain sponges up “philosophy books and history tomes and volumes of poetry.” He tells us, “I was a baby fat with words, but I made no sound.” (“Baby.” “Fat.” See what he did there?) He quotes Ezra Pound, can write his own ­poems and algebraic equations, pose ontological riddles, and weave imaginary dialogues between James Baldwin and Socrates. As the reader struggles along with the rest of the people in Ralph’s world to come to grips with this phenomenon, the phenomenon-in-question is kidnapped by a crazed child psychologist and her henchman, and he wonders if police will notice the discrepancy of a baby-of-color traveling with two white people. It’s at this perilous plot turn that Ralph takes the opportunity to ask the reader:

Have you to this point assumed that I am white? In my reading, I discovered that if a character was Black, then he at some point was required to comb his Afro hairdo, speak on the street using an obvious, ethnically identifiable idiom, live in a certain part of town, or be called a n----r by someone. White characters, I assumed they were white (often because of the way they spoke of other kinds of people), did not seem to need that kind of introduction, or perhaps legitimization to exist on the page. But you, dear reader, no doubt, whether you share my pigmentation or cultural origins, probably assumed I was white. It is not important unless you want it to be and I will say no more about it.

At this point, some of the more perceptive of my own dear readers may correctly suspect that this is, indeed, that Percival Everett, whose 2001 novel Erasure inspired the award-winning 2023 feature film American Fiction, starring Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a Black college professor and author of critically acclaimed-but-less-than-popular novels who contrives to write, under the assumed name of “Stagg R. Leigh,” a cliché-infested Black underclass melodrama, My Pafology, that becomes his biggest publishing success, much in the same manner that Erasure became, up till that point, the most trenchant and devastating of Everett’s dissections of race’s rhetorical booby traps.

The critical success of writer-director Cord Jefferson’s adaption (which softens the serrated edges in Everett’s novel, though it dares to apply its own “meta” endings to its narrative) has raised Everett’s public profile. But at this writing, it’s hard to determine the degree to which the movie will guide its audiences toward Everett’s more intellectually demanding work; even to coy, quirky contraptions like 2022’s Dr. No, a spoof on James Bond movies (like the one whose title Everett cheekily borrows), in which Baby Ralph has grown up to become a math professor renamed Wala Kitu, two words that mean “nothing” in Tagalog and Swahili, respectively. Ralph/Wala, who has devoted his academic career to the study of nothing (“I work very hard and wish I could say I have nothing to show for it”), is recruited by an African American billionaire named John Sill to help him break into Fort Knox to steal a shoebox containing a small amount of nothing, thus elevating Sill to the status of Bond Villain. And what, you might ask, is this “nothing” supposed to do? Why, reduce America to nothing, to negate its existence, to….

It’s as I said before: You either enjoy playing ontological pitch-and-catch with Everett without any expectation of winning, losing, or even understanding the rules of the game he’s playing—or you don’t. And some of Dr. No’s reviewers expressed irritation or bemusement with its puns and double entendres around the notion of nothing. At some point, especially when coming across those moments of sharp observation and curveball witticism even in one of Everett’s knottier works, one must simply throw up one’s hands, as does a character in Dr. No when confronted with Sill’s stratagem of nothing: “Damn it, I don’t understand it, but I love it!”

Call it a hunch, but I think James, Everett’s newest novel, will likely be his most accessible and, thus, most successful, even if its premise, like those of its predecessors, emits strong resonances of the academic and postmodern. It’s a reimagining of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the point of view of Jim, the Black slave with whom Twain’s eponymous young hero runs away from their Missouri home via raft along the Mississippi River. As Everett’s been teaching literature for decades now, I can only imagine the myriad reactions to Huck Finn and all the novel’s anachronisms he has encountered from generations of students, white, Black, and other. And deconstructing whatever constitutes that “other” would make for a lovely Everett novel, if he could find the right story.

Twain’s masterpiece remains, almost 140 years after its publication, a troublesome presence in American culture, even with its unqualified repudiation of slavery and racism. The use of the N-word as a preface to Jim’s name bothered contemporary readers and educators so much that in 2011, a new edition was published with the N-word edited out and the word “slave” inserted in its place. The revised text created its own discontents with some, like the late film critic Roger Ebert, protesting that calling somebody “slave” before their name wasn’t much better than the word it was replacing.

Everett’s James isn’t out to displace Twain’s book. It’s carrying out a bolder, more ingenuous, and, characteristic of its author, more subversive agenda. James is out to fill in the blank spaces left in Twain’s characterization of Jim and, in doing so, accomplishes something far more meaningful for Jim than excising an offensive word. Though Jim is just as vulnerable to the humiliation and danger that plagued every enslaved Black person in the antebellum border state of Missouri, Everett endows Jim with greater dimension and nuance than his original creator did. Huckleberry Finn provided Jim with courage, dignity, and virtue. James bestows upon him the greater, if more complicated, privilege of full (if not yet unfettered) humanity.

Everett’s revisionist approach begins with the thick dialect Twain used for his Black characters, which along with that damnable N-word has been an impediment to contemporary readers’ appreciation of Huckleberry Finn. It turns out, in Everett’s telling, that the minstrel-show patois (“I doan’ hanker for no mo’ un um,” Twain’s Jim says to Huck, which translates loosely to “I want nothing more to do with them.”) isn’t how the slaves really speak, but more of a put-on, a tactic of diversion, concealment—and survival. “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” Jim tells one of his children, who asks why they need lessons in this “language,” He adds: “The only ones who suffer when they are made to feel inferior is us. Perhaps I should say, when they don’t feel superior.” Earlier, Jim even corrects his daughter Lizzie on the “correct, incorrect grammar” when instructing her on how to lie to Miss Watson, Jim’s callous owner, about how good her cornbread is. (In case you’re wondering, “Dat be sum of cornbread lak neva I et,” turns out to be incorrectly correct.)

As craftily as this plot device works as parody, something more in sync with Everett’s body of work is going on here. For as he did in Erasure, Glyph, and similar novels, Everett is right from the jump tossing out a pointed challenge to modern readers’ own presumptions of African American potential and intellect. He has not only played a slick move on however the nineteenth century believed Black Southerners spoke, but made another hard, incisive point about the myths behind identity and how they are enforced—and challenged.

More of Everett’s previous books seep into this one, not the least of which is the range of reading and knowledge of his protagonist. Everett’s Jim, it turns out, has been sneaking into the library of Judge Thatcher, the kindly, if (in Everett’s telling) somewhat clueless, local magistrate, and reading volumes by, among others, Voltaire and John Locke. At various points in Jim’s escape from Miss Watson’s attempts to sell him “down the river” to New Orleans, he dreams himself into dialogue with Voltaire and Locke about the nature of both slavery and freedom. During one such hallucination that comes upon Jim after he’s bitten by a snake, Voltaire tells Jim that he “shouldn’t be a slave,” while adding, “you must realize that climate and geography can be significant factors in determining human development,” and that factors such as “biological differences … stop you from achieving the more perfect human form found in Europe.” To which Jim, through his delirium, manages to rebut Voltaire’s presumptions of human equality by suggesting a distinction between “natural liberties” that we all have by virtue of being human. “But when those liberties are put under societal and cultural pressure, they become civil liberties and those are contingent on hierarchy and situation. Am I close?” Then, as Jim comes to, the dream goes away, and the waking nightmare of his and Huck’s flight from whatever passes for civilization continues. Later, in another dream, Jim will meet up with Locke to discuss the “hypocrisy” of drafting a constitution that justified slavery. One must admit that Baldwin and Socrates never got as deep in the moral weeds in their Glyph debates as Jim and his “enlightened” muses do here.

If Everett’s account of the same odyssey chronicled by Twain is leaner and meaner than the older version, it may owe to the greater urgency Jim is feeling as a Black slave on the run with a white boy who faked his own death to get away from an abusive father. “Huck was supposedly murdered, and I’d just run away. Who did I think they would suspect of this heinous crime?” Jim muses.

While some of the more lyrical interludes of Jim and Huck’s odyssey are shortchanged in Everett’s retelling, there is far more suspense and blunt-edged violence along the way. The Duke and Dauphin, the confidence men Jim and Huck encounter along the way, are just as duplicitous and pompous as Twain depicted, but far more malign, especially toward Jim, who in a plot twist never invented by Twain is separated from Huck at one point and sold to a slave trader who in turn sells him to Daniel Decatur “Dan” Emmett, minstrel performer and composer of “Dixie’s Land.” Emmett enjoins Jim to put on blackface and become part of his singing troupe. At one performance, Jim’s impersonation of a white man impersonating a Black man is almost discovered by someone in the audience. But the ruse holds up, causing Emmett to laugh in relief and ask, “What would they have done to you if they had figured out that you were exactly what you pretended to be?” Once again, Everett assaults the flimsy pillars holding up people’s determination of their identity, collective and individual.

One strand from Twain’s novel that Everett teases out with even greater ingenuity is the bond between Huck and Jim, which over decades has been the subject of critics’ speculation. (Notably the controversial 1948 essay by Leslie Fiedler, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey,” suggested there was a homoerotic element in Huck and Jim’s friendship.) Toward the beginning of James, some of the other slaves are baffled by how protective and solicitous Jim is regarding Huck, the only white person in the area to whom Jim shows any true congeniality, as opposed to the false kind he shows Miss Watson, Judge Thatcher, and others like them. “That boy’s all right,” Jim says. “He’s just trying to figure things out. Like the rest of us, I guess.” Everett, showing his undervalued skill in plotting, weaves this mystery throughout Huck and Jim’s saga with delicacy and even some sleight of hand. When the answer is revealed at the end, it makes so much sense that you wonder why generations of readers, Fiedler and his scholarly peers included, never figured it out.

Perhaps it was the kind of mystery that needed nearly a century and a half to be resolved. And it figures that the one who came up with the solution was a Black cowboy philosopher who delighted in the process of solving problems without caring whether he reached the solution. This time, he did. And it’s exactly the kind of solution that you should care about, though I’ll go to hell, as Twain’s Huck once famously vowed, rather than tell you what it is.