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By Jill Stewart
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|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
PERCHED ATOP A WOODEN STOOL on a temporary stage erected for the UCLA Hammer Museum's New American Writing series, Percival Everett smiles uncomfortably and tells his audience that he's tired of reading from Erasure, his latest novel. "I'm sick of it," he says in his soft, steady voice, then reads a short story instead. He gives another reading a week later, in Brentwood this time, crowded among the stacks at Dutton's. He's wearing jeans and looks a lot more at home surrounded by books than he did under the museum lights. Everett takes a seat at the table, holds up a newly released paperback copy of Erasure, laughs a little and begins, "First I have to tell you that I'm really sick of this book."
It's an odd way to sell books. But though he's written a lot of them (15 since 1983: 12 novels, two story collections and a children's book), selling has never been Everett's priority. His novels are — to borrow a phrase he uses to describe the work of Robert Coover, whom he cites as an influence — "unapologetically intelligent," too brave and quirky to rise very high on the best-seller lists. They are almost always challenging, but rarely abstruse. Each is different from the last and deals with its own discrete formal and thematic concerns; one is set in a cataclysmic future, another in ancient Greece, another in the suburbs. They're inventive, arch and often obscure, with bits of Latin, German, French and lots of high cultural allusions thrown in, all somehow without pretension.
In a contemporary literary landscape that, when it doesn't just look like a mall, looks a lot like Park LaBrea — well-guarded and overflowing with joyless, comfortable, cookie-cutter structures — Everett's work is tucked way off in its own well-hidden corner, lush but skillfully landscaped, filled with strange and surprising beasts. His reviews are almost always good, but his name goes largely unrecognized, and his sales remain modest. Everett hasn't exactly helped them. Though the literary market is demonstrably more interested in celebrity than in language, he stubbornly keeps his head down, and does so without any of the paranoid staginess of better-known reclusive writers. He rarely agrees to be interviewed. He has always refused to do publicity tours for his books, though he made an exception for Erasure, only because, he says, "I need a new roof on my house in Canada."
Erasure is a biting novel about a Percival Everett-like author named Thelonius Ellison, who is frequently told, as Everett has been, that his books are too experimental and not "black" enough. In a fit of rage, he pseudonymously pens a howlingly bad ghetto screed called My Pafology, only to find, to his horror, that it is embraced by the literary establishment as he never has been. Erasure's real-world reception has been accompanied by similar ironies. The novel has received a fair amount of attention, and Everett is clearly ambivalent about its success. At Dutton's, he talks about Doubleday's offer for the paperback rights to Erasure. "They wanted it to inaugurate a new imprint of African-American authors called something like 'Harlem Moon,'" he says. "I asked, 'Did they readit?'" He turned the offer down.
He talks about a scene in the novel, based on an experience he had, in which his protagonist walks into a Borders bookstore and can't find his books in the fiction section, eventually discovering them on the African-American studies shelves. (Of his novel Frenzy, which is about Dionysus, he says, "The only thing ostensibly African-American about the book is my photograph.") Everett was puzzled recently after being given a book award sponsored in part by Borders. Sitting at the ceremony, observing the Borders executives all around him, he says, "I turned to one of the judges and said, 'Have they readthis book?' I seem to be asking that question a lot."
EXCEPT IN THE SUMMER, WHEN HE lives even farther away — in a remote spot on Vancouver Island — Everett lives in Moreno Valley, about 10 minutes east of Riverside. A few exits to the west it's all red-tile-roofed subdivisions and endless chain stores — McDonald's, Target, Walgreen's, Kragen, anti-abortion protesters picketing outside a strip-mall medical clinic, smog hanging low like a curse. Everett's home is past all that, down a skinny road lined with pepper trees, somewhat less than green. He is miles even from a gas station, among rock-strewn hills of scrubby black-brown chaparral, for-sale signs next to fields of dirt and dusty nopales. His place, though, is a little Eden, planted with wildflowers, huge beds of rosemary and purple sage, 150 varieties of roses (his wife's passion). There's a house and a separate two-story painting studio, a big old barn he hasn't figured out what to do with yet, corrals and another active barn for the horse, the two mules, and four donkeys. There's also a cat, a goat and two dogs, a black shepherd named Zöe, and a slightly crooked rottweiler called Bosch. There was once a crow too, a jealous bird named Jim, but he disappeared one day. "He would sit on my shoulder when I wrote," Everett says. "He wrote Erasure."