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Reading Percival Everett

Claude Julien
Anne-Laure Tissut

I. To Write and to Laugh

Moments of Control: Reading Percival Everett’s Short Stories

Anne-Laure Tissut


Through the analysis of the complexities of deceptively-simple-looking stories, this paper aims at showing how the specific features of the short story genre are made instrumental in bringing to the fore some major tenets in Percival Everett’s conception of creation and reading. Above all, irony and the grotesque, both relying on deviation and polysemy, testify to the author’s ever-increasing perplexity towards a world the meaning of which eludes all explanation systems. Yet readers are encouraged to keep raising questions and exploring the many allusions or innuendoes, though they may turn out to be pointing to nowhere. The diversity of relations onto which they open trains readers to think in terms of process rather than disjunction, while the format-related dramatic intensity of the stories offers an invitation to play with the unexpected.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Story titles are abbreviated thus in the essay below: WW stands for The Weather and Women treat me (...)
  • 2 Dated Oct. 28, 2002.

1“True works of art, whatever else they may do, insistently tell about their inception” (Ziegler 93). At first sight, Percival Everett’s short stories1 escape such meta-fictional discourse, although it remains crucial in such novels of his as Glyph or Erasure. On the contrary, the stories deal rather with the daily or even the trivial in an apparently fairly traditional narrative fashion. Their clear-cut forms and plain syntax offer a “deceptively easy to read” surface, as the author himself declared in a personal e-mail message.2 I would like to argue that a smooth surface as well as the relative scarcity of rare words or of long and intricate sentences do not amount to simplicity. The complexity of Percival Everett’s short fiction lies in the creation of an allusive space, which turns out to be an elusive one, insistently pointing beyond the explicit layer of the text.

2How are the specific features of the short story genre made instrumental in bringing to the fore some major tenets in what appears to be Percival Everett’s conception of creation? The following essay will hopefully bring out that by working on tension, deviation and contrasts, the author formulates perceptions of and reactions to an ever more perplexing world.


3“I’m interested in the way opposites fit together, the way they interlock.” (“Dicotyles Tajacu”, bp 75)

4Percival Everett’s stories show a great diversity of topics and consequently of styles, ranging from the elaborate language of finely-chiselled psychological evocations to the colloquial language used in the rural areas of the mountainous West. Tones also vary widely, from the comic of farce in “Squeeze” [bp], in which a character loses his dentures and is given others found on the street, to the sadness and outrage caused by what are called “crying shames” (“Hear That Long Train Moan”, [WW 52]). Deeply set emotions are dealt with, in “Wolf at the Door” namely, as the main protagonist recalls his tense relationship with his father, or in “Cry About A Nickel” [WW], through the ill-treatments inflicted on the child. Farce often verges on the bitter-sweet, for instance in “Last Fair Deal” [WW], where a mole is accidentally smashed off without any further comment than “There you go.”

5Many diverse topics lead to many characters, some flat, some rounded —all in all, more failures than heroes peopling a universe which would seem familiar were it not for the sudden surge of the weird and the supernatural in the midst of the ordinary. Indeed, most stories swiftly shift from one to the other, while pathos and a devastatingly comic irony are juxtaposed. Constant variations are to be noticed throughout, setting “surprise” as one of the main effects to be produced by the stories —effects seemingly planned from the beginning, somewhat in the fashion delineated by Poe in The Philosophy of Composition. A possibly metatextual remark to be found in “Dicotyles Tajacu”, “I’m more interested in tonal columns and color than story” [bp 75], suggests that one of the author’s priorities may be the creation of an atmosphere, here dominated by the unpredictable. The reader’s horizon of expectation is submitted to frequent shifts and wider changes, as favored by the genre of the short story, its density and economy of means.

Experiencing the unpredictable

6The stories abound in twists and reversals, which increase dramatic intensity, sometimes to the point of disorientating the reader. As minor, secondary plots are embedded in the main one, readers compulsively starts tracking hints and links that may give them access to an overall pattern or the arch-plot, so that they may very likely make up clues where there were only coincidences. The readers’ curiosity is triggered off by many a puzzling title, such as “A Good Day for the Laughing Blow” [WW] “Thirty-Seven Just to Take a Fall” [WW], “Dicotyles Tajacu” [bp] —linguistically hard to place—, or “Age Would Be That Does” [DD] —a deconstructed saying. Ambiguity is often present from the start, for instance in “Meiosis”, the first sentence of which reads “‘This is the last stop’”, a marker of continuity as much as of an ending. Since most stories begin in medias res, surprise opens the narrative, as is the case with “Turned Out”, in which negation indicates that the first event is against all odds: “Lawrence Miller didn’t balk at the draw” [bp 25]. The opening may be a definitive-sounding assertion or a clear statement of identity. For instance, definition is at stake in “A Real Hard Rain”: “The rain could have fallen harder, in larger drops, been more persistent, or insistent; but that would have made it something else, not rain at all; as it was, it was balancing on the far edge of its definition” [WW 9]. Most stories thus begin with programmatic first lines which intensify the surprise effects developing throughout the story —as statements, definitions and identities are questioned and challenged— and culminating at the end.

7One may wonder whether the term “end” is still appropriate for such inconclusive outcomes, as narratives are left in suspension. “Hear That Long Train Moan”, namely, ends in frustration for the reader, with the prospect of a withheld revelation: “You know what I mean, don’t you, Morrison?” [WW 56]. Allegedly grounded on shared knowledge, the question calls for assent while actually bringing about exclusion; at the same time, it maintains the confusion between the protagonists’ world and the miniature world built by Virgil Boyd, or between objects and their representations. Most endings are ambiguous, as in “Still Hunting”, in which the main character, by saying “I drank with him” [WW 95], finally admits to a form of reconciliation with a most brutal man whom he previously insisted he couldn’t understand. The last sentence in “Esteban”, “‘siento,’ he heard the whispered words of the boy.” [WW 73], fails to make clear the object of regret as much as the subject who experiences the emotion, since the boy is actually repeating the narrator’s words, ‘Lo siento’. This is but one of the many reversals in the story, the topic of which may well be changing fortune, as exemplified through an inversion of the power relationship, when the lawman finds himself at the mercy of the child he has been chasing. Interestingly, Lo siento are the only Spanish words in the story that are not translated, or the meaning of which is not somehow suggested, as though to emphasize the complex mystery of human feelings.

8A few stories stand out as exceptions, endowed as they are with a final ending. For instance the last, sharp sentence in “Dicotyles Tajacu” reads “The head was only a head” [bp 82], a debunking statement that contrasts with the all-but supernatural events having accumulated in the story, and a form of tautology which suggests that there is nothing beyond. The stories appear as self-contained wholes surrounded by emptiness, and whatever their open endings may have led the reader to expect, what they open onto is a void, which heightens the contrast between their sophisticated structures and a chaotic world.

  • 3 “Last Fair Deal” [WW], “‘This is the last stop,’”(“Meiosis”, line 1),
  • 4 The coined notion of “forme-sens” allows its author to shed light on the suggestive powers of struc (...)

9The recurring device of suspension both reflects and conveys a specific sense of time. Indeed an atmosphere of urgency and imminence develops, and is reinforced by the repeated adjective “last”3 or such expressions as “no longer enough” —in “Wolf at the Door” namely, [bp 37], which all tend to impose in the reader’s mind the paramount notion of the irretrievable, or a sense of loss. Yet despite the atmosphere of urgency, the characters are left quite in the dark as to the impending event, neither do they clearly understand their motivations and feelings: they are hurried towards a mystery which may prove to be nothing or the nothingness of death, still a destination of sorts though not a chosen one, suggested by the fatalistic ending statement in “Last Fair Deal”, “There you go” [WW 50]. Accumulated instances of suspension in the stories suggest how meaningful their time patterns are, thus turned into meaningful forms (or “formes-sens”, in Jean-Pierre Goux’s terms4) emblematic of the absurd, which is a state of suspension indeed, man being held between his aspiration to the infinite and the limits of his mortal condition.

10A pervasive indecisiveness in the stories results in the reader’s confusion, which is further intensified by an extensive resort to double meanings and ambiguities, as well as to more or less obvious symbols. While the reader’s hermeneutic quest is stimulated, it is also thwarted as some symbols are deceptive or fake ones, and allusions or innuendoes turn out to be pointing to nowhere. At the end of “The Bear as Symbol”, the blind woman’s claim that “she hasn’t seen a thing” is followed by the clinching comment “No one doubts this” [WW 88]. It comes as an anticlimax, since, instead of the revelation that had been expected from the title, the story ends with gossip, in an atmosphere of craziness —the same crazy atmosphere as may be found in “big picture” for that matter, in “A Good Day for the Laughing Blow” [WW] or in “A Good Home for Hachita” [WW]. Although the confrontation between the man and the beast does take place in “The Bear as Symbol”, nothing comes out of it for the characters. The end-sentence does assert general confidence, yet the question: what is the bear a symbol of? remains unresolved.

11Dramatic intensity combined with the extensive practice of irony have created an over-suspicious reader, who is led on a wild-goose chase, since there is no underlying logic to bridge the gaps that chance opened into the worlds conjured up in the stories. In spite of recurring characters and concerns, discontinuity runs paramount. As the reader experiences the unpredictable, several behaviors are illustrated in the stories as attempts to cope with a largely irrational world ruled by chance.

Cheating fate

12Repetition appears as a comforting, though not quite safe way to ward off surprise. Flat characters, or types, strike a generally predictable course, while even the more complex characters may withdraw into habit out of fear: at the very moment when Gail gives in to her anger at her husband, who is in hospital after having eaten blue paint, she puts a sharp end to their meeting, saying as she leaves “I’ll see you tomorrow» [bp 24], both a good-bye and the promise of continuity. The linguistic manifestations of resistance also include negations, as those that frame the narrative in “The Weather and Women Treat Me Fair”. The story moves from Will’s refusal to talk to Caitlin on the phone, to the latter’s radical rejection of his proposal, “‘Hell, no,’ she said, softly. ‘Hell, no.’ Louder” (115). What may be interpreted as a grotesque reversal above all testifies to the permanence of the defensive stances taken by insecure and confused protagonists.

13Contrary to such characters who develop strategies of resistance, others have opted for resilience and adaptability. In between, come the outsiders and those living on the fringes of society, who have stepped aside of a world upon which they look ironically, often sarcastically, as though they had chosen derision over despair. Most characters in the stories embody this ironical and implicitly critical stance under one form or another: misunderstood and tormented artists, lawmen who are said to be “not tough, not hard” [“Warm and Nicely Buried”, DD 110], but righteous, kind-hearted and endowed with aesthetic sensitivity, and being able for instance to wonder at the beauty of the flies used for fishing. Yet they are radically alienated from —and feared by— society and their isolation seems only likely to increase, as suggested by the end of “big picture”: Michael decides that Karen is a liar because she said she did not think he was mad. Many characters simply leave when confronted with too complex or overbearing a situation, like Cooper after he has powerlessly witnessed the ill-treatments imposed by his boss, Davis, upon his own son Charlie, in “Cry About a Nickel” [WW]. The story ends with “I climbed into my pickup and drove away” (45), a sentence which has almost turned into a catchphrase in the collection where it recurringly signals the characters’ final choice of bailing out, as is also the case in “Thirty-Seven Just to Take a Fall” (63).

  • 5 This short story found its way into Watershed, in which whole paragraphs recur with few changes. Th (...)

14Yet rather than exclusion, a more easily sustainable behavior is suggested by the very forms of the stories, their many turning points and reversals, which exemplify the diversity of meandering, deviating or eschewing ways. A great number of characters prove to be highly flexible. In “Still Hunting” [WW], the narrator, who eventually drinks with a brute who has just been verbally abusing his own family, shows an adaptability and resilience which contrast with the mechanical degradation manifested through the mother’s ever-repeated and senseless motto, “At least I’m still a Jew” (89, 94)5. Even if out of cowardice, the protagonists tend to avoid confrontation and escape fate, not always successfully though. In “Thirty-Seven Just to Take a Fall” [WW], Luke tries to rescue the dog from the fight but eventually has to abandon it because it is vicious; in “Last Fair Deal”, Dan gives a chance to the mole that has been causing havoc in his garden as he pretends to hit it with a baseball bat, actually planning to miss; against all odds, “It was a good swing” [WW 50]. Such trickster-like abilities rank them among human beings as opposed to the mechanical, degraded nature of the first kind of flat characters. Although the term of anti-hero seems more suitable to their repeated failures, they do reach a form of heroism, so eager to live do they appear through their successive attempts at cheating fate and death. When eschewing and ducking prove no good, then their ultimate resort may be bailing out, or “Gaining the Door” [WW], the title of the shortest story in the collections. Yet most characters will not do so without having first cried out their outrage and helpless anger in an ultimate protest. Many a story stages last-ditch attempts consisting in release rather than withdrawal —rescuing a dog from a dog-fight in “Thirty-Seven Just To Take a Fall” [WW], or setting free the bull in “Turned Out” [bp].

The grotesque twist

  • 6 “grotesque”, in Dictionnaire des genres et notions littéraires, Encyclopaedia Universalis.

15An important number of endings evoke a grimacing grotesque figure in the corner of a painting. “A Good Day for the Laughing Blow” ends with a comic reversal, as the narrator is driving his four year-old child back home, after having retrieved him from his lesbian, cannibal mother’s grip: “‘Get out of the way, you jerk!’ I shout as someone blocks our access to the street.” [WW 36] Usually his son is the one who yells from the car, imitating the narrator’s former behavior, so the reader is informed. At the end of “Warm and Nicely Buried”, when a lawman understands the body they had been looking for was stolen by the family, and that his colleague knew all the time, objects run wild while the characters remain silent: “His truck bounced wildly along the wagon-rutted lane even though he was driving slowly” [DD 127]. Animated objects seem to set up a similar threat in “Hear That Long Train Moan” [WW], the title of which perhaps evokes the threat raised by a material world over which men lack control. An outlet to extreme tension may be found sometimes in the hallucinatory dimension, as in “Meiosis”, or in dreams, as in “Wash” [bp 109]. Both the unconscious and the grotesque twist appear as means of expelling the extra tension generated by a sense of alienation. Is this a vain revenge taken by the weak and the helpless? Or the only outlet found to release excessive energy? The grotesque appears as an “unsafety valve”, or “soupape d’insécurité”, in Véronique Klauber’s terms,6 indeed there is something deeply disturbing to such inversions and outbursts. Much violence is contained in the stories, the smooth surfaces of which hide a raging commotion beneath. Such extreme tension is perceptible through irony, namely in the title “Nice White People” [WW], repeated ad nauseam in the story where those “White People” are perpetually being fooled by the Indians. Such a strategy of contrast is no mere social criticism, but has an ontological purport, since it underlines a malicious side in men. The final paragraph recapitulates the results of the white people’s gullibility:

Fall came. The horse died of old age. The rabbits died of the plague, still bald. The vet said they just froze to death. The woodstove was cranked up all the way. The outhouse blew over in the wind. The Indians packed to move down mountain [WW 109].

16The neutral tone of the brief epilogue to the story seems to have the same cause as grotesque outbursts: one is at a loss what to think, in the absence of any easily available meaning. Short of understanding, one may only look for solace and relief. Yet, beyond its relaxing or soothing function, could the final grimace play the more crucial part of a necessary means of survival?

17Indeed the grotesque seems to mark a first step toward change, insofar as it testifies to and promotes awareness, by working as a reminder of the outrageously irrational nature of the human condition. The grotesque thus favors a shift in point of view, akin to the multiple deviations to which the text is submitted. As the turning points accumulate, hierarchies tend to blur, thus compelling the reader to choose and define priorities. In “Esteban” [WW], the loosely connected events let the reader wonder which one of the events is central: the shot in one of the protagonist’s bottom, the murder which is being investigated by the lawmen, the snake-bite, or the racial conflicts in the background? Other uses of deviation as a more efficient means to bring one’s meaning home rely on polysemy, connotations and the allusive values of words. Namely “Chacon, Chacon”, although an allegory on the duality of human nature, evokes the Spanish “chacona”, a slow, three-beat dance: the ironical surname of the eponymous character may subtly expose the simplistic nature of the dual vision offered in the fable-like story. Or again, in “Gaining the Door” [WW], the connotations of the verb suggest that no reward is to be expected other than death. The narrators’ oblique strategies may also consist in inserting apparently unimportant sentences which turn out to be emblematic or loaded with useful meaning to the understanding of the story. In “big picture”, two passages echo each other:

There was one spot in the picture... that Michael loved. Although put on wet together, Naples Yellow and Permanent Blue had not fused into green. The two colors remained so painfully separate that Michael wanted to cry each time he saw it. (144),

18and four pages further down,

There were spots of light throughout the rooms, lime-colored night-lights plugged into the wall outlets; an awful green, he thought, but somehow soothing to the pain in his head (150).

19Such insistence on separate colors, producing a mixed effect, both painful and lovely, seems to indirectly refer to the tragedy of separateness as human beings’ plight, or, in a word, to mortality. The topic is not dealt with overtly but surreptitiously instilled into the text, compelling the reader to look in the corners.

20Grotesque decentering, as a potentially revolutionary force, the manifestation of a metaphysical rebellion rather than a social or political one, sets readers wondering and encourages them to develop a renewed point of view: to “see themselves peripherally”, as the painter in “A Good Home for Hachita” [WW 24] hopes “dusty children and good people” may do thanks to his paintings. In this, the reader is helped by the network of echoes which favors associations and comparisons. For instance in “Still Hunting”, the hunted object appears at the end: it is “the meaning of life” [WW 94] which is said to have escaped the characters so far. The text calls upon the reader’s memory and analytical mind, which in their turn set the text in motion, to bring about new meaning. Such circulation suggests that the topics of the grotesque (the body, scatology, masks) would not serve their questioning purpose without the grotesque dynamics, from which, as it turns out, they can hardly be separated. In “Squeeze”, castrating the bull at the beginning [bp 125], is paralleled by the character’s losing his dentures. Internal echoes upset the hierarchy according to which man had been granted superiority over beast.

21More generally, the specific rhythms and dynamics of the grotesque influence the reading pattern and help the reader see beyond the surface accidents which have stopped most characters’ eyes. To the recurring question “What happened?”, they can only answer “I don’t know” [“Cerulean”, bp 23], since the progressive evolution of things has faded under the effects of discontinuity, and escaped them altogether. Among the characters, only artists seem to have been privileged with the sense of continuity: Michael sees himself as mentally not separated from his painting, therefore he has to retrieve it in “big picture”. Such is also the case for Evan Keeler in “A Good Home for Hachita”, in which the artist seems aware of ageing as he proves able to appreciate the transformation of beauty: at least this is a possible interpretation of his rejoinder to a woman in a bar having asked him if she was fat, and to whom he answers “Yes, but it looks good on you” [WW 25]. The grotesque dynamics encourage the reader to think in terms of process —which promotes a vision of continuity over that of disparate, isolated events and discontinuity. Thus if the irony consistently adopted by many narrators or characters is often mentioned as one of the main features in Percival Everett’s style, the grotesque may also offer a relevant notion as the expression of the author’s ontological and possibly even metaphysical stance. Indeed, while irony remains part of a two-fold pattern, the grotesque pioneers beyond duality in order to adapt to the irrational and even try to overcome the paralysing contradictions inherent in human nature.


  • 7 E-mail message received from Percival Everett, dated October 28, 2002.

22Percival Everett’s stories do “tell about their inception”: they tell about the acute sense of the absurd lying at their origin, and about the subsequent compulsive questioning and potential serendipitous revelations. Everett’s short story writing is an art of flickering moments, privileged visions like the one which opens “Cry About a Nickel” [WW 37] or the several evocations of beautiful landscapes in “Wash”, reminiscent of Eudora Welty’s epiphanic “Still Moment” (195), when the vision of a white heron brings the three protagonists together in a moment of transcendence. For such redeeming ephemeral visions of beauty, can the weirdness of the world be accepted? Or is it accepted “only because this is a sick planet”, as suggested in Zulus: “All of what has happened is very strange and bizarre and I accept it only because this is a sick planet. Disease has its surprises” (Zulus, 152). The cure may lie in the devastating comic of Everett’s stories, the kind-heartedness and humanistic concerns showing through them. Above all, it lies in his racy prose, making of his stories “moments of control”, opposing their achieved structures to the turmoil of the world submitted to chance and weirdness. To that extent, the writer’s craft may be likened to the illumination of manuscripts by monks, as both create beauty in the text and suspend time. Still a more appropriate comparison could be made with fishing, a much favored sport in the stories where it appears as an aesthetic, contemplative practice, namely in “Wash”, through the steady beat of the sentence as much as its semantic contents: “The close work with the feathers, thread, and fur had always relaxed him” [bp 94]. Tying flies, fishing and writing all rely on minutely wrought forms which provide shelters from chaos. The reader is thus drawn back to the text itself, envisaged as a totality, alive with references and echoes, beyond the duality opposing surface to depths; yet as it includes silences and ambiguities, this text “rais[es] questions” rather than answering any. As suggested by the author himself, this is probably what “makes [him] a better writer”7. By this he meant the improvement of his own writing, but it seems justified to avail oneself of the author’s strategies of deviation in order to broaden the meaning of the sentence, and make of it a statement of Percival Everett’s excellence among contemporary writers.


Works Cited

Everett, Percival. 1987. The Weather and Women Treat me Fair. Little Rock, AK: August House.

Zulus. 1990. Sag Harbor, NY: The Permanent Press

big picture. 1996. St. Paul, MN: Gray wolf Press.

Watershed. 1996. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.

damnedifido. 2004. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.

— “Meiosis”, uncollected story.

Dictionnaire des genres et notions littéraires (Encyclopaedia Universalis), “Grotesque” entry.

Goux, Jean-Paul. 1999. La fabrique du continu. Paris: Champ Vallon.

Welty, Eudora. 1982 The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. New York: Hyperion.

Ziegler, Heide, Ed. 1988. Facing Texts. Encounters Between Contemporary Writers and Critics. Durham and London: Duke University Press.


1 Story titles are abbreviated thus in the essay below: WW stands for The Weather and Women treat me Fair, bp for big picture and DD for damnedifido.

2 Dated Oct. 28, 2002.

3 “Last Fair Deal” [WW], “‘This is the last stop,’”(“Meiosis”, line 1),

4 The coined notion of “forme-sens” allows its author to shed light on the suggestive powers of structures themselves, in addition to –and as never quite distinct from- the meaning of their word contents.

5 This short story found its way into Watershed, in which whole paragraphs recur with few changes. The topics of religious craze and insanity as embodied by the Reskin family are one of the many narrative threads woven into the fabric of the novel. This illustrates the creative process as conceived of by Everett, for whom story-writing offers a reprieve front the more demanding, fully absorbing task of novel-writing.

6 “grotesque”, in Dictionnaire des genres et notions littéraires, Encyclopaedia Universalis.

7 E-mail message received from Percival Everett, dated October 28, 2002.


Associate Professor of American Literature at Université de la Sorbonne, Paris IV, France. She is the author of a monograph on contemporary American novelist Paul West, Paul West: la littérature à sensations (Belin: Paris, 2001) and has translated Percival Everett’s novels Erasure, American Desert and Wounded as well as poet Nick Flynn’s memoirs, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. She is currently translating Everett’s novel Glyph (for Actes Sud) as well as Aryn Kyle’s The God of Animals (for Gallimard). Her current research, in literature and aesthetics, focuses on the forms and motifs of the ephemeral and the sublime in contemporary American literature and arts, with a specific emphasis on prosody, the study of the material features of language and of the correspondences between image and text. Translation finds its place in her research not only as a revealing agent of stylistic features but also as an agent of continuity, promoting passages and mutations.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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