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
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....