Issue 221, Summer 2017
Percival Everett was born in 1956 and grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. After graduating from the University of Miami, he began a philosophy degree at the University of Oregon, then transferred to a master’s program in fiction at Brown, where he wrote his first book, Suder (1983), a comic novel about a third baseman for the Seattle Mariners whose attempts to shake a slump lead him on an odyssey across the Pacific Northwest in the company of an elephant and a young runaway.
Everett has earned a following as a master of many genres who has a taste for the absurd. His work includes crime novels (The Body of Martin Aguilera, Watershed), revisionist Westerns (God’s Country, Walk Me to the Distance), retellings of Greek myth (Zulus, For Her Dark Skin, Frenzy), and the wild caper Glyph, narrated by a baby genius who has read most of Western philosophy while still in diapers. Baby Ralph is kidnapped first by a psychotic child psychologist, then by a rogue agent from the Department of Defense, all the while savaging post-structuralism and writing poems in his head. Of Everett’s 2011 crime novel, Assumption, Roger Boylan wrote in the New York Times, “I haven’t read anything like it since Georges Simenon.”
There have also been several collections of conceptual poetry, four books of stories, and the three novels for which Everett is perhaps most admired: Erasure (2001), in which a “critically acclaimed” but commercially neglected black novelist stumbles into fame and fortune by writing a parody of so-called urban fiction; I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009), about an orphan who unexpectedly inherits a large share in Turner Broadcasting System; and Percival Everett by Virgil Russell (2013), an impossible-to-describe-or-summarize ouroboros about parents, death, and aging. His most recent book is So Much Blue (2017), a novel about an abstract painter haunted by regret as he attempts to finish an enormous canvas that may or may not be his masterpiece.
Since he began his writing career, Everett has abstained from nearly all aspects of “a writing career” other than actual writing. He has never reviewed a book, nor does he read reviews of his books. He maintains no online presence and eschews publicity and self-promotion. When Everett and I met for the first time, in the spring of 2016, at a coffee shop near his South Pasadena home, he asked that we keep our focus on his work and make as little reference as possible to his life off the page. “I hope I’m not too tough an interview,” he warned me. When we met again, six months later, in that same coffee shop, Everett was gracious—not tough so much as assured. He speaks softly and slowly, choosing his words with care. He does not mind a long pause in conversation. He is quick to laugh.
As I was setting up my recorder, rock music kicked on over the coffee shop’s sound system. Worried that our voices would be drowned out, I pulled a stack of books from my bag to make an ad hoc mic stand. These included a collection of poems that caught Everett’s interest. He asked me if I ever wrote poems myself. It was midway through answering him that I got the recorder working and understood that we had, in fact, already begun.
I think most serious film people consider Blazing Saddles to be a classic in some measure.
What’s interesting about Blazing Saddles is that no one could make it now. It reminds me that in some ways we were a lot smarter talking about race in the seventies than we are talking about race now. My students look to me for permission to laugh.
In a particular scene?
The use of the word nigger in the film is one that—and this is sweet in its way—gives them trepidation. They don’t know what to do. I tell them, It’s a word. They’d be ill-advised to go use it in the neighborhood of USC, but in the context of the film and the understanding of the problems that the film is addressing, it’s every bit as valid as the use of nigger in Huckleberry Finn.
My favorite scene is when Bart first gets to town as the new, black sheriff and everyone pulls their guns on him and he escapes by holding himself hostage.
It’s crazy. It’s wonderful nonsense.
But the amazing thing is how intelligible it is to Bart’s audience. Since they can’t accept the idea of a black lawman, he simultaneously performs the roles of the black criminal and the black victim, and then it’s completely intelligible to them. They can accept him in both roles at once, even though they cancel each other out. I don’t want to ask a reductive question, “What is the role of race in your work?” or something like that. I’m hesitating because I don’t want to sound dumb . . .
That’s never stopped me.
So I’m going to go ahead and risk it.
There are two ways to approach the race thing. One is the unfortunate marginalization of American writers who happen to be black by calling them “black writers,” which tacitly acknowledges the existence of something else that would be mainstream, and so ghettoizes the work immediately. That is the unfortunate part. If one allows that, one fails to acknowledge the truth that there is no such thing as a “black American experience.” There are experiences of black Americans, and those experiences are as wide and varied as those of white Americans. If it were the case that one would go into the bookstore and see the White Male American Books section, there would be a problem with that, but even as I say it you can see how idiotic that would be. That said, every novel has in it the people who experience the world that’s depicted. Some of those characters will be white and some will be black, and that will inform not only what they experience but how the reader experiences the novel. And that shouldn’t have anything to do with any label placed on the book.