Where hope lingers like sagebrush on the wind

In his latest collection of Western tales, Percival Everett searches for the good in range life.

 

Uplifting endings are as popular in Western literature as umbrellas in the desert. Sad stories sell. Desperados that inhabit notable works of renowned writers like Annie Proulx and Sherman Alexie tend toward drunken violence and tragic denouements.

Percival Everett, an African-American author of nearly 30 books, takes a different tack in his new collection of nine short stories, Half an Inch of Water. No matter what crisis Everett unloads on his characters, hope lingers like the scent of sagebrush in the wind.

They tend to get lost, physically and emotionally, as they search the wilderness for meaning. Sometimes they find themselves by connecting with others whose hardscrabble lives appear grounded in reality. In Everett’s world, people need each other to survive.

In “A High Lake,” a lonely widow loses her way on horseback in the mountains with fearless abandon. “Dying in the saddle was a romantic way to go, she thought.”

A single parent in “Exposure,’’ worried about losing ties with a teenaged daughter, tries to show his love for her on an outing to Burnt Lake. Spot-on dialogue between clumsy dad and rebellious child foreshadows doom when a cougar enters the scene.

A 14-year-old boy in “Stonefly,” whose sister drowned years ago in a river, goes fishing to ease the burden he feels from distraught parents. Everett paints this scene with understated detail, and some of the most elegant writing of this collection. In a scene reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams’ stories, Everett writes:

 “He cast the fly out and it disturbed the water awfully. But as soon as it landed, the big fish was on it. The trout bit the fly and pulled it deep. Daniel suffered from trigger lock. He was frozen, shocked. He finally gave a yank to set the hook. The trout took off downstream.”

The finest story, “Little Faith,” exposes a cultural gap in the West that Everett describes deftly. 

When a white rancher with a pregnant mare in dire straits confesses to his African-American veterinarian, “You know, you’re okay,” the doctor responds, “How’s that?” The rancher confesses, “You know, being a black vet out here, I had my doubts.”

Not all nine stories are winners. “Finding Billy Whitefeather” has a mystical quality that stumbles over a weak plot. “Liquid Glass” gets Stephen King-ish: it’s about a box containing a severed head and not much else.

Nobody escapes unscathed in Everett’s fiction. His world operates according to Darwin’s rules, but however bleak it appears, it teems with convincing characters, persistent folks who figure out how to survive. 

Half an Inch of Water: Stories
Percival Everett
163 pages,
softcover: $16.
Graywolf Press, 2015.