Photo by Joe Pugliese
Issue: Winter 2005
The Wicked Wit of Percival Everett
elites hardly know what to make of the USC English professor who shines
a satiric spotlight on their posturings and produces first-rate
literature in the process.
By Shashank Bengali
There might not be a more fertile
mind in American fiction today than Percival Everett’s. In 22 years,
the USC English professor has written 19 books, including a farcical
Western, a savage satire of the publishing industry, a children’s story
spoofing counting books, retellings of the Greek myths of Medea and
Dionysus, and a philosophical tract narrated by a 4-year-old. He has
given us a galaxy of vivid characters – an art-loving horse trainer, a
disillusioned hydrologist, a big-game hunter, a baby genius, a slumping
major-league ballplayer who learns to fly, even the late Sen. Strom
Thurmond. Pigeonholing Everett’s “style” seems as futile as predicting
what he’ll write about next.
So it’s maddening to him when the
literary establishment tries to fit him into easy categories. The
easiest, of course, has to do with skin color. Last year, an article in
The New York Times Book Review on his novel, American Desert, identified Everett in the second sentence as an African-American. Everett had to respond.
“I feel confident in stating that the color of my skin has little to do
with that novel,” he deadpanned in a letter to the editor. (American Desert
is a Frankensteinesque farce about a suicidal college professor
decapitated in a freak car crash who returns to life at his own
funeral.) Such veiled racism, he concluded, “makes one appreciate the
overt brand of bigotry practiced by the likes of the late Strom
That letter was a rare public outburst from a
private man who assiduously avoids the business side of fiction. “I
don’t read reviews, and I don’t look at sales figures,” he says over a
lunch of eggs Benedict and apple pie at a downtown Los Angeles diner.
Dressed casually in a black polo shirt and jeans, the lean, fit-looking
professor says he’d rather just write and let the books speak for
themselves – and largely, they have.
Through two decades of producing diverse, demanding, award-winning
fiction, Everett has earned a devoted readership and wide respect for
his uncompromising approach to writing despite the book world’s ever
more commercial leanings.
“Percival Everett is, for me, one of the best American fiction writers
producing now,” says Charles Rowell, a professor at Texas A & M
University and founder of the literary journal Callaloo,
which recently published a special section in tribute to Everett’s
work. “I appreciate his willingness to write about any subject that he
wants, not to be restricted by whatever publishers and tradition
The Washington Post has called him “one of the most adventurously experimental of modern American novelists.”
“He’s literature’s NASCAR champion,” The Boston Globe
praised, “going flat out, narrowly avoiding one seemingly inevitable
crash only to steer straight for the next.” Reviewing Everett’s send-up
of post-structuralist academic theory, an L.A. Weekly critic wrote in 2000: “If only one novel of Glyph’s wit and intelligence is written in Los Angeles every year … this new millennium may just prove itself bearable.”
Everett probably didn’t read that review, but if he had, he’d have been
pleased, because of all his books – and he typically doesn’t play
favorites – the voice and humor in Glyph
are closest to his own. Set in the 1970s, the novel is a critique of
the impact of French literary philosophy on American academia, narrated
by a 4-year-old linguistics prodigy named Ralph Townsend. Having
grasped sophisticated language by the age of 10 months, Ralph (whose IQ
is 475) gets annoyed when his mother reads to him the tale of
Goldilocks – “some drivel about bears and a blonde girl,” Ralph sneers.
He perks right up when she gives him Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by 20th-century linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Over-wise and hyper-fussy, Baby Ralph distrusts the spoken word and,
while still in his crib, begins to communicate via hastily scrawled
notes to his astonished parents: “lips look ugly to ralph when they are
moving ralph needs books in his crib.” When the outside world gets wind
of the brainy babe, a succession of kidnappings ensues, with
physicians, academics, government operatives and a prison guard
scheming to get hold of Ralph.
is classic Everett – challenging, relentlessly imaginative, filled with
high-flying intellectual acrobatics, and often flat-out funny. But in
this commercial age, there’s an immediate problem with such a book: How
to market a satire of French post-structuralism with footnotes on every
page and an appendix labeled “Ralph’s Theory of Fictive Space”? It’s
not surprising that Glyph didn’t win a wide audience; it was described even by some admirers as too smart for the room.
None of this fazes Everett, who has never shot for the bestseller
lists. “I write to make art. I don’t really care about making a lot of
money,” says the author whose face graced the cover of the May/June
2004 issue of Poets & Writers
magazine. “I don’t think about the audience. I don’t want the work to
be inaccessible, but I don’t mind if someone finds it difficult.”
He says he writes about what interests him, which explains his prolific output and the range of subjects he has tackled.
He reads voraciously – probably more than he writes. Take the array of
books he was reading last summer: a history of geometry titled Euclid’s Window; The Birds of Heaven, a naturalist’s story of his global pursuit of cranes; a book about the Indonesian volcano, Krakatoa; A History of the Arab Peoples
by distinguished Oxford scholar Albert Hourani; and one or more volumes
on French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the father of postmodern
thought. Reading widely is essential to his writing, Everett says: “I
put everything in and see what comes out.”
possibly, lies in the variety of work that he has created,” says Fiona
McCrae, director of St. Paul, Minnesota-based Graywolf Press, which has
published several Everett books. “From work to work, you never know
what he’s going to do next.
“That’s partly why he’s been slow to get the recognition he deserves,”
she adds. “He’s not building up a consistent profile. Just as soon as
people understand who he is, he goes and does something different.”
Everett says he can’t help it. “I have no idea where the stories come
from,” he says. “It’s just whatever I’m interested in.” The perpetual
student, Everett is someone who revels in intellectual inquiry; for him
the extended experience of creating a novel is endlessly fascinating.
“I like studying,” he says. “I’m always reading, and it starts me
researching some subject. I don’t do that thinking I’ll find a book.
It’s just magic.”
“Magic” is Everett’s shorthand for his writing process, something he
admits to having difficulty describing. After he finishes writing a
book, he likes to put it aside entirely and move on. It’s not uncommon
for Everett to begin public readings by announcing to the assembly of
fans: “I’m sick of this book.”
“I’m terrible at talking about my work,” he explains. “It’s flattering
to be asked the questions. I just wish I was a better interviewee. I’ve
always been really reserved, always avoided doing interviews. I’m
trying to be better at it.”
Colleagues cite Everett’s great modesty. “He’s completely
unpretentious,” says James Kincaid, a close friend and fellow USC
English professor with whom Everett co-authored last year’s satiric
show-stopper, A History of the African-American People [Proposed] by Strom Thurmond, as told to Percival Everett & James Kincaid.
“He’s a celebrated novelist – and he talks about it as if he were
tearing off little notes to the teacher,” says the distinguished
scholar in Victorian studies and childhood sexuality.
In person, Everett is soft-spoken
with a ready laugh. While he’s laconic about his work, he quickly
animates when the subject turns to politics or life in his adopted home
of Southern California. As a child growing up in Columbia, South
Carolina, the son of a dentist, Everett used to sneak into the book
stacks of the local university library and while away hours reading. He
left Columbia at age 17 to enroll at the University of Miami, playing
jazz and blues guitar to help put himself through college. Later he
taught high-school math and worked as a ranch hand.
has enjoyed something of an extended love affair with the West since he
first drove cross-country in his early 20s. “I like the space, the
landscape, the characters, the many different geographies,” he says.
“It informs a lot of my thinking and my work.”
A decade ago, he and his wife, Francesca Rochberg – a professor of
Assyrian history and astronomy at UC Riverside – bought a ranch on 14
acres of desert foothills in Moreno Valley, 70 miles east of Los
Angeles. Everett is an animal lover. On the ranch he tends to a small
herd of mules, horses and donkeys. (“There’s always some sort of donkey
issue,” he complains cheerfully.) He’s also got a goat, two dogs and a
cat. And a two-story studio where he paints abstract canvases.
Running a ranch doesn’t permit Everett much time for writing. “It was a
lot of work at first, when we had to kind of rebuild the place –
putting up fencing, clearing chest-high brush,” he recalls. “It’s less
now that the place is kind of established, but there are still periods
of heavy work.” Everett wakes at 6 a.m. to feed the animals; he spends
his days repairing fences and fixing water lines. When he needs a break
from the blistering heat, he ducks inside and bangs out a few pages.
The steady pace of farm life helps Everett keep a level head. “Shoveling manure puts things into perspective,” he quips.
During the school year, twice a week he makes the 70-minute commute by
train to USC, where he has been on the faculty for six years. After
three years as English department chair (his colleagues call him a
“gifted administrator”), he returned to full-time teaching, or as he
puts it: “I get paid relatively well to hang out with smart young
Having previously taught at the University of Kentucky, Notre Dame
(where he and his wife met) and UC Riverside, where he ran the program
in creative writing, Everett says he particularly admires USC for
embracing the surrounding community and for enrolling students from
“My last undergraduate class was almost a model of ethnic diversity,” he says.
His students say Everett is tough, but for those who can take his
criticism and the silent glances that practically scream You can do
better than that! – the rewards are great.
“He’s probably the only person who’s read everything I’ve ever
written,” says Bridget Hoida, a doctoral student in USC’s creative
writing program. “As a writing student, a lot of people pat you on the
back. Maybe sometimes you’ll hear a few things about what’s not
working. Percival will have you turn to the last page and say there is
one redeemable paragraph in the whole thing.
“He’s the first person I’ve had to lay it all on the line with, and he will tell it like it is.”
||Percival Everett on teaching: “I get paid relatively well to hang out with smart young people.”
Photo by Joe Pugliese
When he isn’t teaching,
Everett divides his time between the ranch and a summer home on
Vancouver Island, British Columbia. This year, he spent less time in
Canada and more time trout-fishing in Idaho and Montana – traveling
alone, driving along riverbanks until he found a secluded spot he
liked, and camping out under the stars. “No one wants to be with a
smelly, cigar-smoking fisherman,” says Everett, justifying his hermit
ways. But the truth is, “he’s very much a loner, despite being such a
warm person,” says Kincaid. “He has adjusted to a kind of geography in
his mind of being alone a lot.”
As fetishistic as some
writers are about their work schedules, Everett’s less-structured
methods may reflect the fact that he came to writing relatively late.
As a philosophy student at the University of Miami, he was interested
in Wittgenstein and in what is known as “ordinary language philosophy,”
an approach that tackles deep philosophical problems through close
analysis of everyday speech.
Because this kind of study depends on posing hypotheticals involving
everyday conversation, Everett found himself writing a lot of dialogue.
Gradually, as he grew disenchanted with philosophy, he began writing
stories. He ended up in a master’s program in writing at Brown
University, where he wrote his first novel – Suder,
about a third baseman whose major league slump sends him skidding into
self-awareness. The book was published to acclaim in 1983, when Everett
But during the past 20 years, the West’s vast
landscapes, culture clashes and sense of isolation have increasingly
marked Everett’s fiction. In recent novels, Everett has trained an
unsparing eye on today’s wide-open spaces, with characters no one would
recognize from “Gunsmoke.” The novel Watershed
(1996), for example, features a young hydrologist, who happens to be
black, getting mixed up in a bloody showdown between Native Americans
and federal agents over water rights.
“I certainly write
the West I see,” Everett says. “The West of movies, television and much
literature is a West that never existed. It’s a fascinating, complex
place, like any place, but it so often falls into that category of
With God’s Country
(1994), he parodies pastiches of the Old West with aplomb. Gleefully
turning the genre on its head, Everett gives us the worthless cowboy
Curt Marder, a racist Union Army deserter; and Bubba, the tracker hired
to help find the bandits responsible for kidnapping his wife (whose
loss evokes less emotion in Marder than the bandits’ killing of his
dog). Everett uses the pair’s journey to skewer every shibboleth about
daring cowboys, know-nothing Indians and the “Manifest Destiny” that
drove America’s expansion in the 19th century. It’s Bubba (a black man)
who turns out to be the quiet, strong hero of Western lore. Even George
Armstrong Custer, that old warrior, makes a cameo as a cross-dresser.
There’s serious intent behind all the humor and high jinks, reminiscent
of Twain (whom Everett cites as an influence, and whose mark is evident
in Everett’s best satires). In a recent issue of Callaloo, USC English professor William R. Handley observed in his essay on God’s Country:
“The formula Western (in its most popular version and with little sense
of irony or parody) often responds to the history of American expansion
and colonialism with reductive typologies, Manichean morality and neat
plot resolutions – all of which Everett’s work dramatically eschews.”
But Everett is at his deftest with the highly charged issue of race. In Glyph,
Everett waits until 50 pages into the novel to have Baby Ralph pause
his stream of commentary on post-structuralism and
abstract-impressionist painting to ask the reader:
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
nigger by someone. White characters … did not seem to need that kind of
introduction, or perhaps legitimization, to exist on the page.
It’s a trick that Everett uses elsewhere in his fiction – obscuring the race of his characters or, as in Glyph,
springing it upon readers in a way that forces them to confront their
preconceptions. It can be disorienting, even disturbing. In an essay in
Callaloo, the writer Madison Smartt Bell recalls coming to the end of Everett’s third novel, Cutting Lisa
– about a doctor who must perform an abortion on his daughter-in-law.
Only then did Bell noticed Everett’s photo on the back of the book. “I
… thought, before I could stop myself, ‘Oh, did it say somewhere those
characters are black?’” As it turns out, the race of the characters
isn’t mentioned at all.
But Bell’s knee-jerk reaction
raises what, for Everett, is the greater question: Has popular fiction
conditioned us to make European features the default in any work of
art? Everett certainly thinks so.
“In this culture, readers assume that if there are no other clues, then
the narrator is white,” he says. “That’s an assumption no one can make.”
It’s just one form of what Everett calls the “insidious racism” that
infests the public’s response to art. He thinks again of the New York Times
review that made a point of mentioning his race. “I get reviews like
that all the time that just don’t make sense,” he says. “Even if the
novel had African-American characters, I don’t know why it makes a
difference that I’m an African-American writer.
“The reviewer feels they need to say, ‘By the way, the writer is black.’ I’ve never seen, ‘By the way, the writer is white.’”
Out of a career’s worth of frustration with this apparent double-standard sprung Erasure
(2001), Everett’s best-received book to date – but one he was somewhat
saddened to write. It features an Everett-like protagonist named
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a writer of esoteric fiction whose latest
effort has been rejected by seven publishers, the last of whom calls it
“too difficult for the market.” Ellison has been told that he should
put aside his intellectual leanings and “settle down to write the true,
gritty stories of real black life.”
Meanwhile, the runaway bestseller of the moment – breathlessly trumpeted by an Oprah doppelganger – is a book titled We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.
Penned by a middle-class Midwesterner, it begins: “My fahvre be gone
since time I’s borned and it be just me an’ my momma an’ my baby brover
Juneboy.” Fawning critics praise the book’s “real” language and “true
to life” characters, while its pandering black author lands a lucrative
The scholarly Ellison is incensed by the book’s success. In response he dashes off his own expletive-laden ghetto rant: My Pafology, written under a pseudonym. (In presenting this novel within the novel, Everett wickedly mimics Native Son, Richard Wright’s legendary 1940 novel credited with first laying bare the violence, poverty and injustice of ghetto life.)
The fictional author intends My Pafology
as a broad satire of the book world’s persistent appetite for urban
stereotypes. To his horror, the slim novella winds up a bestseller and
winner of a major literary prize.
In real life – and here’s a bitter twist of irony – Erasure
won the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Legacy Award in
2002. At the awards ceremony, Everett couldn’t resist a bit of sarcasm.
Asked by The Washington Post what the event meant for
African-American fiction, he shot back: “I don’t know. Have you been to
the bookstore lately? Have you seen the ‘white fiction’ section
Everett says he used to get much angrier at that
sort of thing, but he’s mellowed a bit. “Maybe it’s age” – he’s 48 –
“but what comes along with that is growing tired of it.”
Tired of reporters and critics he may be, but tired of writing he
clearly is not. The last two years have seen a flood of publications:
an absurdist novel (American Desert) and a contemporary Western (Wounded); a collection of short stories (Damned If I Do); his first volume of poetry (The Wall); an introduction to The Jefferson Bible, the Founding Father’s famous re-edit of the gospels; and an epistolary novel (A History of the African-American People [Proposed] by Strom Thurmond).
Upon reading the latter – a wicked lampoon of the publishing trade
presented as a series of (fictional) letters and memos negotiating the
terms of publication of an account, by Strom Thurmond, of the
segregationist senator’s seminal role in bettering the lives of blacks
– one begins to understand why Everett stays far away from the book
world’s politics and prejudices, instead devoting himself
wholeheartedly to his wife, his ranch, his teaching and his writing.
Journalist Shashank Bengali ’01 has written for USC Trojan Family Magazine
about architects Paul R. Williams ’19 and Jon Jerde ’66 and publisher
Linda Johnson Rice ’80. In August, he moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where he
is currently Africa correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers.