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 read it?'" 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 read this 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."
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 all people." 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."
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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."
IT'S LIKELY THIS SENSE OF ALIENation that keeps Everett's work so blessedly independent, that not only gives him his skills as an observer and his uniquely skewed outsider perspective but shields him from the lures of commerce and celebrity. There is little celebration of the onward march of American culture in his work, and none of pop culture. When I ask him if he has ever been interviewed on television, his eyes widen in visceral horror. Everett wants no part of the whole spectacle. "I really hate being the center of attention," he says. "I'm not a show." He would rather be left alone to write, and at times seems almost resentful that the process requires an audience. "The mere fact that I want to write fiction for a living is evidence that I'm mentally deficient," he laughs, "but I do want to participate in making truth, and I can't make it without a reader. And though I don't think about the reader, the work isn't complete until somebody reads the damn thing."
For someone who writes as much as he does, though, Everett is oddly uncompulsive about the process. He doesn't write every day, or on any disciplined schedule at all. He harbors no romantic notions about inspiration and creativity. "Maybe that's why I've produced a lot," he offers, "because I am maybe abnormally relaxed about it. It just kind of happens." It's just another thing he does, like caring for the animals, woodworking, painting or sawing wine bottles in half. And though he works hard at it, he says, "At the same time I'll leave in a second to go and play with my wife. Work always comes second to anything like that." The demands of the market mollifying editors who demand a commercial product, showing up for readings and book signings, smiling and nodding and shaking hands for many as much a part of writing as the act itself, don't seem to rank at all.
Later, over lunch at a Thai restaurant in Moreno Valley's "downtown" one of many strip malls I ask him what advice he gives his students about writing. He thinks for a moment, and I wonder if he'll warn them about the cruelties of the market, the laziness and fickleness of editors and readers alike, the hardships of creating art in a world with little use for it. He doesn't. "Write what you want to write," he begins. "You gotta have faith in what you see. It might not be a recipe for success, but it is a recipe for artistic happiness. Also," Everett laughs, "it's only books."