By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Seated in the shade on a blue Adirondack chair, Everett looks a lot less forbidding than in his book-jacket photos, in which he is invariably scowling. His eyes are lighter and softer than they look in black and white. He laughs freely and warmly. His speech is slow and relaxed, and he pauses occasionally to toss a battered Frisbee for the dog. I ask him why he's so sick of Erasure."I don't think it's my best book," he says. (That privilege he extends to 2000's Glyph, a hilarious academic satire and meditation on language narrated by a more than slightly precocious 4-year-old.) He's happy that it's been so well-received, and that it's resonated with so many people, but Erasure, he complains, "is getting attention for all the wrong reasons." I ask him what those are, and he answers, "The race stuff" — which seems an odd complaint for a book that is largely about race. It's not just the ironies of his life unpleasantly mirroring his art that irk him. And it's not that the book has caused unwanted controversy, though he had anticipated that it might. Instead, "There's been a lot of people getting onboard and agreeing with me, and there's nothing more boring than that."
Pressed as to what he would have liked readers to concentrate on, Everett shakes his head. He doesn't know, he says, then adds, "I don't really want to be present. That's the only problem I have with the book — the character resembles me so much that it's harder for readers to divorce me from the work, and my mission has always been to disappear."
In the interest of forestalling his complete disappearance, here are a few facts about Percival Everett. He would likely wish to remind us that facts are different from truths, the latter being the domain of literature. With that caveat in mind, Everett is 45 years old. The son of a dentist, he grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. He put himself through college playing guitar in Miami jazz clubs, then worked as a schoolteacher for a while. At some point he fell in love with the West ("I liked the openness," he says, "the idea of the openness"), went to grad school in Oregon to study philosophy, working on sheep and cattle ranches all the while. He left the University of Oregon to enroll in Brown University's writing program, and wrote and sold his first novel, Suder, while at Brown. Soon thereafter he began teaching, first in Kentucky, then at Notre Dame (where he met his wife), then in Wyoming, then at UC Riverside (where his wife now teaches Assyriology) and now at USC.
Everett keeps busy. He sleeps about four hours a night, but only, he says, because his wife has been encouraging him to sleep more. Left to himself it would just be two or three. He spends a lot of time painting, colorful abstract work reminiscent of Kandinsky or Klee. He reads a lot, "not so much fiction as everything," he says. He re-reads Samuel Butler's famed Victorian novel The Way of All Flesh every year ("It makes me mad as hell that he wrote it and I didn't"), and returns frequently to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Chester Himes' If He Hollers Let Him Go, Zora Neale Hurston and Flannery O'Connor, but he can get just as lost, he says, in service manuals for machinery. He writes a lot too, but says he's trying to figure out a way to write less. He does woodworking, and did a lot of the construction on the ranch himself. In Canada, during the summer months, he fly-fishes. He's learning to slice wine bottles in half. He maintains an insect collection. Of course, he teaches, both writing and literature, last year chairing USC's English department. And then there are the animals.
It's not just that he owns a lot of them — Everett clearly loves animals. When a golden retriever walks into Dutton's, his eyes light up and he stops talking in midsentence. Back at the ranch, his own small-scale Noah's Ark, he cooks chicken and rice every day for creaky old Bosch, who stopped eating dog food when he got a stomach infection. After a walk in the hills, he notices that Bosch is limping, and gives him a cortisone shot in each haunch, murmuring tenderly to him all the while. At least four times over the course of the afternoon, Everett mentions, unbidden, that he really does like people, until it seems he's trying to convince himself. At one point, though, talking about gun control, he qualifies: "I don't have a lot of faith in allpeople." And walking through the hills in the public land behind his house, he points to the trash spilling down a neighboring hillside. "People are worse than anybody," he shakes his head. "You just can't do anything about it."
Everett's work consistently betrays a deep mistrust of any and all human collectivities — his apocalyptic novel Zulus ends with its protagonist unleashing a lethal gas that will wipe out all human life and, in context at least, it seems like the right thing to do. When I ask him about this, he agrees that the mistrust is there. "And if you want to play my therapist for a bit, I've always felt alienation," he says. "That's one of the things that's culturally African-American in my work; it's the experience of people who've always been outside the center." He pauses for a second, and adds, "I take that back, that's just American."