What do you know?

Author Percival Everett defies categories and generalizations.

 

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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...