Tales of sagebrush and murder: A review of Assumption


Percival Everett
272 pages, softcover: $15.
Graywolf Press, October.

There aren't nearly enough books set in New Mexico. With its cinematic lighting and uniquely off-kilter characters, the state should grow great novels as plentifully as chiles. Strangely, though, it hasn't. California author Percival Everett sets out to change that with Assumption, a trilogy of mysteries starring Ogden Walker, a sheriff's deputy in a fictional county near Taos. Mixing the spare sentences and gruff tones of a pulp detective novel with the painted topography of the Enchanted Circle, Everett evokes the area's seamy side, the dark truths hidden on sagebrush-pocked plateaus.

A seemingly unwitting participant in his own life, Ogden is an outsider in a land of outsiders. His father, who was black, "moved to New Mexico from Maryland because there were fewer people and so, necessarily, fewer white people. He hated white people, but not enough to refrain from marrying one, Ogden's mother." At odds with himself from the start -- "it was hard for a son to think that his father hated half of him" -- Ogden has grown into the sort of guy who trudges through life not quite certain how he got there. His career as a cop is no exception.

Though small-town life should be slow and quiet, mysteries -- and bodies -- begin to pile up in Ogden's jurisdiction. He dutifully tracks the culprits, following every rinkydink piece of evidence, regardless of what dangerous dive bar, remote hunting cabin, or mountainside meth lab might lie in his path. But even as his obsessive quests lead him to forego sleep, square meals, and visits to his widowed mother, it's clear he'd rather be fishing. "He didn't really want to see dead people," Everett writes. "It made him queasy to see dead people, but damn if it wasn't interesting."

Tagging along with Ogden makes for a great read, and Assumption is a page-turner ­-- as much for the quintessentially New Mexican kooks who populate it as for the hard-boiled prose. "This was not going well," writes Everett as Ogden, hot on the trail of a Denver-based hooker, runs into a group of heavily tattooed thugs. "Ogden was glad he wasn't wearing his sidearm. Nothing gets you shot faster than having a gun, he always thought." It all ends, though, in an unsettling, things-ain't-what-they-seem denouement that colors the rest of the book.

Everett's ambitions are loftier than merely setting a dime detective loose in the arroyo; the book glances at larger themes -- race, ennui, diminished expectations.

The result isn't flawless, and the ending may not sit well with some. But the scenes and scenery that come before will stay with you, lingering like the smell of rain after a high-desert storm.

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