Percival Everett was born in Georgia and raised in South Carolina, but don't bother asking him about it. Nor should you inquire whether he can relate to the protagonist in his 2001 novel Erasure, a black author of literary novels who disguises his identity in order to manufacture a best-seller. And please don't ask him why -- after publishing 16 novels, three books of poetry and a couple more collections of short stories, after having won some 25 awards from the Pushcart Prize to the PEN USA Center Literary Award for Fiction and after having taught and lectured and mentored for a quarter of a century all over the country -- hardly anyone appears to have heard of him.
It's not that he minds the questions; it's just that you won't get anywhere. "What would I do with fame?" Everett asks, and then laughs, engaging his whole face -- wide-set eyes placed in near-perfect symmetry, broad, lightly freckled nose -- in the exercise.
Ask him instead about the time when he was 21 years old, freshly graduated with a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Miami, and driving west for the first time. He passed through Utah's Canyonlands, and then carried on into Wyoming where he beheld the Wind River Range. "I said, 'All right, this is it; this is where I belong,' " Everett recalls. "I fell in love with the landscape. I fell in love with Wyoming." He fell so hard, in fact, that in the early 1990s, he accepted a visiting professor position as the William Robertson Coe chair in American Studies at the University of Wyoming. But he did so on one unusual condition: that he could live among the Arapahoe and Shoshone on the Wind River Reservation. To this day, he doesn't know why. "I had no connection with the reservation, and I had no prior interest in Plains Indians," he says. "I just wanted to be there."
He still seems amazed that the people who hired him agreed. "The university had a pilot who had a plane, a Cessna like the one in (the 1950s television series) Sky King," Everett says, "and every Thursday they'd fly me in to teach my class and then fly me back to the reservation." He stayed for a year and a half, slept on sofas, made friends. Before he left, he helped a Cheyenne elder document two ceremonies, the Arrow Worship and Sun Dance, for future generations. "He was the last man alive who knew them," Everett says.
Out of that year Everett also got at least one novel, the delicate and vivid Wounded. The book imparts enough information about the training of sensitive horses that you might feel you could do it yourself when you finish. It also fills in the cultural gaps left open by media coverage of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man beaten and left to die near Laramie, Wyo. And that's another subject Everett will expound on: the exploitation of isolated tragedies in rural places. "It's the American inclination to scapegoat regions to resist an indictment of the entire place," he says. "Yes, there are homophobes in Wyoming. Because there are homophobes in America."
You might, after working your way through Everett's books and trying to talk to him about them, conclude that the author hates generalizations -- except that's a generalization, too, and he won't stand for it. In a career marked by a stubborn refusal to be categorized -- by style, by race, by age or by genre -- Everett is wholeheartedly a Westerner.
"I get claimed by a whole bunch of regions," he says. "But my sensibility is Western. The terrain I love is Western." He has written about ranchers, sheriffs with names like Bucky and the kind of women who get married in jeans and boots, all of whom eat moose steaks given by neighbors and carry guns -- some of them with respect, some of them not.
Which does not, of course, explain why his books do so well in France, where he recently spent a year with his wife, novelist Danzy Senna, and their two boys, aged 5 and 7. "It's the oddest thing," he says. "I get recognized on the street in Paris."
At 57, Everett has built a career in which he doesn't have to explain away any of those contradictions. Not to his editor, Fiona McCrae at Graywolf Press ("She gets me," he says), or his publisher. "Who else is going to let me write retellings of Greek myths and parodies of literary theories?" He speaks so quietly in this crowded North Los Angeles coffeehouse at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains that I have to lean toward him, shoving my Olympus recorder toward his edge of the table. He seems delighted when I confess that I almost didn't get past the first 30 pages of his most recent novel, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, because I was too thrown by the protagonist, Murphy Lang, who morphs from painter to horse trainer to a physician who gets paid in Leica lenses by a 400-pound drug dealer.
"I was going to name the book Frege's Puzzle," Everett tells me, invoking the theories of the 19th century German philosopher Gottlob Frege. "I was struggling with the problem of sense and reference." In homage to Frege, he titled chapters "Hesperus," "Phosphorus" and "Venus" -- all names for the second-closest planet to the sun, the example Frege used to question to what extent a name could contain essential information.
Yes, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell is that maddening, that enigmatic, not unlike the author himself. It's also funny and engaging and deeply humane: Historical characters surface to interact with each other in interesting ways; a voice we presume to be the author's lectures on various philosophical quandaries; a man carries on a fragmented conversation with his aged father, who drifts in and out of lucidity. The Murphy Langs, Everett says, are "a mixture of me, my father, my grandfather." You get to know them the way you get to know people over a lifetime, Everett says, "in pieces." Sometimes they add up to a character you think you know. And then, suddenly, you find you don't.
At the University of Southern California, where Everett's been teaching for the last 14 years, he works hard to impart to his students his primary belief about writing: "There are no rules," he says. "Every work is different. Every work is a new search for a voice." The writer should never be afraid to put the reader to the test.
"A challenging work should not be something that puts people off. It's an invitation. When it seems hard, that's where we should be.
"It's like Walt Whitman said in the poem 'By Blue Ontario's Shores' -- I'm going to paraphrase, but with Whitman it doesn't really matter -- 'If you want a better society, produce better people.' " Challenging readers, then, might be one way to produce better readers? "I suppose," Everett says. "But I'm not smart enough to educate anybody. I'm only smart enough to confuse somebody."