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Reading Percival Everett

Claude Julien
Anne-Laure Tissut

II. To REwrite and to RElaugh

Text and Paratext Interaction in Watershed

Claude Julien


Robert Hawks is one of Percival Everett’s more race-conscious characters who helps uncover federal government abuse of Native American rights while remembering his youth in KKK-dominated South Carolina. This essay shirks these fictional and historical issues as such. Instead, it scans the paratextual segments (quotes from the past, from books, catalogues, pieces of governmental statutes, medical information, etc.) from a structural standpoint. By collating these segments against the story’s discourse, one realizes they seem to produce a “funnel effect”. This text and paratext mutual bolstering builds discursive cohesion out of fragmentation.

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Body of Martin Aguilera, to some extent a companion novel to Watershed, also presents a plot li (...)

1Robert Hawks tells his adventure in the first person. He is a young hydrologist who has left his Denver home to go on a fishing trip away from Karen, his perturbed, sex-driven white girlfriend. After being tricked into giving a ride to Louise, a mysterious Indian lady, he decides to use his expertise and knowledge of the area to help Indian resistance and discovers the military have buried a leaking anthrax tank up on the mesa, and diverted the contaminated creek water towards reservation lands to preserve white-owned ranch land.1

  • 2 General Custer (who never actually rose to that rank in the military) appears in the flesh, very un (...)

2The resisting Indians launch an action to blackmail the federal government. They kidnap General Custer’s remains (why not make up one more of the countless stories about the general’s body?2) and entrench themselves in a church on the reservation. Robert’s help is enlisted to bring some food to the fighters. He has escaped the FBI siege as the story ends. He holds proof of the federal government’s disingenuousness on film, and is on his way to the Denver Naturalists’ Conservancy Office as the story draws to a close. But there is no news of the shoot out on the car radio. The mountain is inert: an image of the social inertia that is sure to come and bury Robert’s evidence. No racial watershed is in sight. Lost bearings and disillusionment prevail in a sometimes sarcastic view of the world.

  • 3 All references are provided between square brackets in the essay’s main body

3The above synopsis that leaves aside Robert’s own life (his adolescence in the South of the Civil Rights era and his unsolicited rapport with Karen’s deranged father) shows that Watershed3 is a hard to classify novel. It can be read as a mystery, but one whose investigator is a private citizen caught in the iniquities of government misconduct, and who resists in the way his past life tells him he should. It can be read as an ethnic/political protest novel based in part on events of the early seventies opposing Native Americans (and black Americans alike) to governmental undercover operations organized by the FBI and COINTELPRO that infiltrated militant movements.

  • 4 See or (two sites accessed on Dec. (...)

4Put together, mystery and protest weave history into fiction most clearly through the water question. Ute Indian water rights, one of the novel’s main lifelines to the real world, made news with the Winters case the US Supreme Court heard in 1908, then with a 1930 Colorado State Court case, with the 1986 Indian Final Water Rights Settlement Agreement and was, one year after Watershed was published, on the agenda of Governor Romer’s 1997 visit to the area when he criticized the plan to curtail Indian rights dubbed ALP-Lite.4

5Watershed received scant attention in 1996. Reviews, such as anthologized on internet book store sites run the gamut from unconditional appreciation to dislike based on the presence of “subplots” that supposedly hamper the main diegetic drive, on the shuttle movement from Robert’s past to his present life (from racist South Carolina in the Civil Rights era to modern Colorado), or on the rumination of social unfairness that restrains wit and humor. Publisher’s Weekly (accessed on the Barnes and Noble internet site) finds fault with the italicized fragments that are blamed for breaking the narrative flow, in particular because they are visually separated from the text’s body by suspension marks:

But the rest of the novel is a bumpy ride, interspersed with leaden excerpts from secondary sources (ranging from topographical reports to a 1916 treaty granting water rights to the Plata Indians.

6Opinions vary. The Joseph Ferguson Small Press reviewer found these very same excerpts worthwhile because they “syncopate” the text. Such paratextual elements, a technique the author also uses, but for different effects in Glyph or as each of the A to Ζ chapters in Zulus begins, are what the following essay sets out to look into. My aim is to discuss their function as cotexts that parallel the fictitious events, that stress unfairness, reinforce physical and mental violence. Watershed thus appears as a composite whole in which fictitious elements are inseparable from the extra-diegetic ones. The novel brings two voices together: Robert’s voice commenting on his personal situation, and a supra-voice that introduces extra information —outside material that signifies on the protagonist’s ideas and decisions.

7The novel opens with a quotation from a now forgotten official, Edward Parmelee Smith, who was appointed Commissioner for Indian Affairs in 1873. This is a white-centered optimistic statement that Indians, unless “under extraordinary provocation”, are unlikely to muster a force significant enough to fight [1]. Little Big Horn occurred three years later. The provocation had obviously happened, and perhaps a modern event, violence or injustice, in turn provoked the novel into existence.

8The story itself opens with Robert’s assertion of his identity (“My blood is my own and my name is Robert Hawks” [1]), perhaps a way to point out he sees himself as not directly involved in the showdown between federal forces and the besieged Indians entrenched in a small Episcopal church on the northern edge of the Plata Indian reservation. The narration abruptly veers back to the actual beginning: a hole in the roof of a cabin. This place is Robert’s retreat from society. There is good fishing around: the ideal clearing house to think his way through his current domestic crisis, breaking away from Karen. His retreat is no hiding place, however. On the very night he gives a ride up the mountain to a diminutive Indian lady, he gets involved in the fallout from the near-by murder of two FBI agents. Robert moves closer to the Indians out of curiosity, out of compassion (Louise’s mother is dying from cancer), too, and an instinct to resist partly self-acquired in his early days in South Carolina, partly inherited (just like his passion for the outdoors) from his grandfather’s readiness to stand up on his own ground.

  • 5 Karen first appeared as Laura in “Still Hunting” (The Weather and Women treat me Fair. Little Rock, (...)

9This is not to say that Watershed is a run-of-the-mill protest fiction based on dichotomies. FBI Special Agent Davies whom Robert instinctively dislikes sides with him against a racist waiter. The story’s world is complex. People live amid their own contradictions —like Robert’s grandfather, an atheist, a rebel married to a deeply religious and rather submissive wife. The story’s society is sick. Individuals are sick. Robert who acts boldly (if reluctantly) on behalf of the Indians is unable to speak to Karen about breaking off their relationship. Karen’s father,5 born Jewish and turned born-again-Christian, detests his wife and daughter (and the whole world), irrationally takes to Robert after a turkey hunting party on Thanksgiving day and comes to him to die. Institutions are sick, in the image of the FBI killing off their own agents (a black man and a Seminole Indian) because they are on the verge of revealing the presence of the buried leaking container in the reservation basin to Indian militants. Or of Big Junior Brown, a full blooded Indian who claims he is an FBI man “at war with the government” [48].

10The story keeps shifting from Robert’s adolescent days to his young manhood, from one strand, South Carolina, to another, Colorado, eliciting continental-wide sickness. Physical sickness, with the cancer wasting Louise’s mother away. Mental sickness, with Karen’s seeking refuge from depression through sex. Social sickness, with dishonesty and double crossing: past and current lies that have become true through repetition, past and current violence.

11Humorous satirical vignettes hardly provide any relief and sickness also pervades the text through a number of secondary characters. Like the State policemen whose spoken mannerism (punctuating sentences mechanically with a question tag) Robert mimics. Like Holly who changes her name to Laurel because she is to marry a Mr. Wood... gives up her matrimonial plans but keeps her new name because she likes it better. Like the fat post office employee whose ham and cheese sandwich oozes mayonnaise: a Johnny-knows-all who speaks as if he were on top of the world. Like the radio talk show buff who mentions seeing a UFO in connection with the two murdered FBI agents. Such characters only flit onto and off the page, but, because of the sad laughter they provoke, add up to a disheartening view of the world. A world bent on self-destruction, with the rueful irony of white America putting down Indians that have become thoroughly Americanized. Big Junior Brown, who just loves cars and trucks and is so clumsy when casting his line as to hook his ear. Dicky Kills Enemy, whose aggressive-sounding name hides a city boy who does not know the reservation land where his own father lives.

  • 6 Two sources (Kappler, Charles. 1972. Indian Treaties 1778-1883. Mattinuk, NY: Amereon House; W. Chu (...)

12The extra-diegetic fragments, whether real or fictional,6 help root the story into the nation’s history and prevailing violence. The fifty-nine fragments fall under five broad categories constructed from lingering impressions after closing the novel for the first time, in this order of importance: (1) nature’s violence (the Plata basin hydrology), (2) broken treaties, (3) societal violence, (4) body and mind disorders and (5) elements apparently disparate or unconnected (such as the making of an artificial fishing fly or cranial nerve connections. The fragments are fairly evenly divided among the fifteen chapters, except for the first, the second and the fifth chapters. There are nine occurrences covering four categories in the first chapter, nine occurrences covering all five categories in the second chapter and seven occurrences pertaining to four categories in the fifth chapter. The nature and origins of the fragments are varied. Helter-skelter, there are excerpts from treaties between the United States and Native Americans (not necessarily Plata Indians, as there is no Plata reservation per se); excerpts from a medical encyclopedia; pastiches of medical or hydrological reports; colonial slave codes; fragments from a fishing gear catalogue (including one giving advice on how to deceive the fish); molecular representations of peyote and mescal; a passage from Chief Red Cloud’s farewell address delivered on July 4, 1903; another from an 1882 letter from the DEA to a minister of the Native American Church. There also are allusions to legal codes, such as code 18 frequently mentioned in rap; FBI or COINTELPRO memorandums; a list of Indian chiefs’ marks —signatures— at the bottom of a treaty; a stanza from a plains Indian song.

  • 7 Charts purporting to visually delineate the courses of texts have been the object of recent researc (...)

13The first two chapters reach into all five categories, the last four into three only with a heavy dominance of the broken treaties group (ten occurrences out of thirteen). The annexed chart7 sums the classification process up and calls for a few explanatory words. Categories have been sequentially presented from left to right as they surface when reading the novel. The digits entered under each category follow the order of appearance in a particular chapter, a presentation that helps bring recurrence out and shows how the text moves back and forth across the board.

  • 8 When moving the identity issue to the macro level, Dr. Reskin’s conversion to born-again Christiani (...)
  • 9 Even without Leonard Hat’s first name that calls long-time prisoner Leonard Peltier to mind, the al (...)

14The inserted fragments must of course be approached in terms of their contribution, the extent to which they buttress the story’s discursive program. Such support can be very direct, as in chapter 10 through the excerpt from Red Cloud’s address to the Lakota people where the tired old leader insists on remaining true to one’s identity rather than go to the white man’s heaven.8 This fragment is a direct comment on the action of the black detective who strictly abides by his professional duty when visiting Robert’s grandfather without pursuing the investigation. Another instance from the same chapter is the quotation from US District Court Judge, Fred Nichols, dismissing the federal government’s case against the Wounded Knee defendants in 1975. Not only is this quotation’s ending “[t]he waters of justice have been polluted, and dismissal, I believe, is the appropriate cure for the pollution in this case” [135] congruous with the story’s general context. It also matches the atmosphere of the preceding passage in which the American Indian Revolution people act as if they were fugitives while they have not been convicted,9 and take infinite precautions (a circuitous route, changing cars and clothing) when driving Robert from a meeting place in a tavern to their headquarters. Interaction between fragments and the surrounding text can also be indirect. One instance occurs when Robert visits Hiram Kills Enemy, the shaman, in his home. Before he branches off from the high road comes an apparently not pertinent fragment defining, in treaty-like language, the boundaries of a future Indian cemetery and outlining the funding for the fence and upkeep. This rather arid insert, over half of which concerns the size and outlay of the terrain, seems totally unrelated with the matter at hand. However, followed as it is by considerations on the bumpy dirt road leading to Hiram’s cabin —how the path had remained smooth until the day when the Council decided to maintain it by plowing the snow in winter Tongue-in-cheek, Hiram points out a private hidden drive to his home, one whose entrance he keeps hidden by some brush. The understatement is that doing things in the white way disrespects natural order, is, in fact, just as preposterous as telling the Indians how to run their burial grounds. The fragment’s pertinence rests in impertinence toward the pretension to rule everything, to commit everything to paper.

15Mutual support between the story line and the interspersed fragments constantly verifies at the micro level, as fragments and the surrounding story elements connect together to build meaning. The most significant function of this pairing is to link fiction to social awareness through history. Bringing a fictitious present and the historical past together stresses the persistence of racism. It turns the novel into a political statement, as Robert does the right thing toward the American Indian Revolution people, of the need for inter-minority solidarity. Indeed, the fragments that serve that aim come down from the records of past treachery targeting Native Americans and from statements of the state’s power such as the allusion to code 18, or FBI/COINTELPRO memos.

16The fragments that do not directly connect with the country’s social and racial histories (namely the Plata basin hydrology and elements dealing with fishing or medical considerations) function at the macro level as they aggregate into three essential strands that make up the novel’s semiotic backbone: (1) the deception trope, (2) the complexity trope and (3) the violence trope.

17The deception trope is established early on through the fragments describing fishing lures: first the way a nymph must function for the fish to be captured, second the assembling of an artificial fly from many allogenic elements to give it a life-like believable appearance —another form of trumpery.

18The complexity trope starts from a very short enigmatic fragment describing the hippocampus (a ridge along the lower section of each ventricle of the brain) and the Golgi bodies it holds, corpuscules that store chemicals to be later secreted into the nervous system. The allusion to the Golgi bodies is polysemic because the cells are analogous to the anthrax tanks buried in the Plata basin that release bacteria which seep into the creek. But, beyond this self-evident analogy, is the cellular complexity of the brain and the nervous tissues, a motif that recurs in later fragments such as the one describing the cerebellum, with its insistence on two colors, depending on surface and depth, that beckons the reader away from anatomy into social stratification:

  • 10 One may remark how, in a rather convoluted and paratactical sentence, the grammatical subject comes (...)

Contained in the inferior occipital fossae and stationed beneath the occipital lobes of the cerebrum and separated from it by the tentorium cerebelli is the cerebellum.10 It is flattened from the top down and is oblong, measuring 3.5 to 4 inches transversely and about 2 inches in the center. It is made of gray and white matter, the gray matter here being darker than in the cerebrum and occupying the surface. The white matter is inside. Unlike the cerebrum, the surface of the cerebellum is not convoluted, but etched with many curved troughs or solci, varying in depth [84].

19Further down, another anatomical fragment describes the nerve connections and once again insists on the center and the periphery while adding the concepts of connections unseen, as well as of routes to be followed down well-ordered compelling canals:

Each and every cranial nerve is attached to some part of the surface of the brain, but these fibers also extend deep into the nucleus of the brain, the center of the gray matter. The nerves emerge from the brain, pass through tubular prolongations in the dura matter and leave the skull through foramina at its base, on the way to their final destination [140].

  • 11 See J. Harlen Bretz’s research, briefly accounted for in “The Floods That Carved the West”: The Smi (...)
  • 12 Small capitals are used in the text, and the three words form a whole line.

20The violence trope is present in the multiple allusions to the action of water: the way rain seeps in depending on the nature of the soil (as well as the terrain’s slope and vegetation), on the duration of the shower, and becomes underground water: currents unseen, but at the origin of brutal action above ground. For the hydrological passages mostly insist on the scars of geological times the creek’s basin bears. Nature’s furor, catastrophes due to the sudden release of masses of water, is inscribed in the American western landscape.11 It is translated into the novel through words whose violence is inescapable. Faults that have “impacted the Plata Mountain watershed” [21]. Water cutting or etching its way through rock. Floods carrying alluvium. Debris swelling in the river plain. Competition at the confluence of two streams, in a technical hard-to-understand fragment from which one mostly retains that the accumulated sediment will obstruct the river bed, eventually hamper the stream’s outflow and, should a flood occur, provoke a catastrophe. Place names contribute their own violence, such as “Hellhole Creek” [12]. All of the ten hydrological passages that are disseminated in seven out of the fifteen chapters connect with a seemingly unrelated historical fragment, the excerpt from the Edward Parmelee Smith statement that opens the novel. Discussing the Indian danger to white society, Smith begins with a geological image (“LANSDSCAPES EVOLVE SEQUENTIALLY”12) that develops into a social declaration: the study of human action as well as of geological formations implies looking for causality. The analogy the paratextual elements construct between nature and society is interestingly sowed by an allogenic document dating over a century back. The three words opening the novel, words that have been chosen but not written by the author are carried into and by the whole book.

  • 13 The case for transposing from trope to social discourse is bolstered by a short story in damned if (...)

21These tropes amalgamate with the social discourse arising from the story. Baits floated out for the citizens to swallow. Illusions nourished by the disingenuous promises of dominant forces. Goods meted out from US government shops, or annuities pledged to Indians that accept to remain confined within the reservation. The complexity of the social body. The need for conformity, order —everyone in their proper place, as each nerve follows the proper sheath. The underground waters of the secret service. The scars left by the clashes and confrontations that shape the social landscape. The alluvia, the hard-to-remove fallout from the past.13

22The fragments’ function goes far beyond the simple need to graft story on fact, the way actual treaty excerpts support the fictional defrauding of The Plata Indians water rights. The seemingly unrelated fragments (such as the description of the deglutition process, or the vertical section of the tongue) form a network and open onto a metaphorical space that brings fiction into its own. One possible drawback is their adding up to an erudite fiction that demands more than simple collaboration from the reader. For example, the fragment opening chapter eleven, “Title 18, United States Code, Section 2383, Section 2384, Section 2385” [135] bring up federal statutes meant to control and repress rebellion or insurrection, seditious conspiracy and advocating the overthrow of government. Can the contents of these statutes be by-passed? What would readers ignorant of Title 18 miss, unless they are ready to engage on some minimal research? This fragment is not isolated. Ten pages or so before, a passage explicitly affirms the federal right to prosecute any offense in any district in which the offense was begun or carried out. Similarly, the short cryptic fragment “A partially ordered set A is said to be well ordered if and only if every nonempty subset X of A has a greatest lower bound in X” [127] need not be fully identified of elucidated as a mathematical proposition concerning the “real number system”: what matters here is the concept of subsets —classes— fitting within a well-ordered system. A similar idea will be restated through the description of the way nerves connect to the brain in the following chapter. Similarly, failing to trace fragment n° 2 in chapter ten to Red Cloud’s famous statement does not significantly mar the reading: one aspect is lost, Indian heroism, while dissatisfaction with the world the white man proposes still stands out.

23It might be of interest, in these days of computers, to reformat Watershed minus the extra diegetic fragments and have readers of the two versions compare their notes and impressions. The study of Watershed’s paratext raises more questions than it provides answers. The unanswered questions are of the genetic order: did this co-text involve any research while the writing was being done, or, multi-faceted as it is, did it pre-exist the book’s creation in the mind of an author with wide-ranging interests?

24That kind of investigation is of interest to the scholar, not the reader. What we have today is the book as the author wanted it to come out: story and fragments together. And, of course, these fragments play with creativity — amount to a game that eventually involves the willing reader as well.

25Side by side with the literary game, its wry humor tinged with satire, is pessimism. Watershed is in itself an arresting title that makes the reader receptive to the concept of some kind of transition. To someone fond of the outdoors, it means hiking over broken terrain to a downhill towards change. Change is necessarily perceived as a turn for the better, but the story denies improvement. The title pulls one way while the story offers a deadlocked situation resting on continued suspicion and ill-will toward the victims of America’s mainstream group. The federal government is this group’s agent. It thwarts nature’s course by diverting the watershed to suit its own perceived needs, the protection of white interests. It hides its intention, deceives, brutally shapes society the way floods carved the landscape. It controls openly or covertly. It kills its own agents who were apparently ready to step out of line by informing the Indians on the buried anthrax germs. It sorts people out in the same way as Clara the storekeeper at the junction sets red jelly beans (and brown eggs) apart to take advantage of each customers’ preference —a preference that does not make any sense:

I was greeted with “Your girlfriend called again” from Clara. She was standing behind the counter, pulling red jelly beans from a many-colored pile of jelly beans on the surface in front of her. I watched her long liver-spotted fingers at work. “Why are you doing that?”
“I charge more for the red. People like the red ones, so I pull them out and charge more.” She glanced up at my frown and shook her head. “Don’t give me a hard time. You’re willing to pay a few cents more for brown eggs.” She passed a broken bean through her lips. “All eggs are the same,” Clara said, popping another piece of candy into her mouth. “Why prefer the brown ones?” [20].

26This short vignette typical of the author’s satirical (though tolerant) bent points out Robert’s own irrational behavior for such a little thing as the egg color he prefers. Habits have been formed. No watershed is in sight. Life must be allowed to run its course without change, just as, out of an irrational kindness —or is it weakness?— Robert is unable to confront the truth about his relationship with Karen, or, out of a bizarre phobia, is reluctant to get to mending the cancerous hole in his cabin roof for good:

I had put off the patching job for some time, but I couldn’t any longer.... I set the ladder where I had been sitting earlier, from where I had been able to detect the cancerous puncture; then I climbed the rungs, found the tiny hole between the boards, and pushed a broom straw through it. I next took the ladder outside where I used it to get on the roof. I found the straw and marked the spot with a scratch of white chalk. I stood and looked around and remembered how I didn’t much care for roofs. Heights didn’t bother me, but roofs —the pitches of roofs, the materials of roofs— did: especially metal roofs, which this one was not, but still the thought of it bothered me, the thought of the slick surface, of the sound of my steps on the tin, the jagged rips [12-13].

27As the story ends, the siege of the compound is still going on, although there’s no news of it on the radio. FBI Special Agent Davies, “cold sober for the first time” [200] has allowed Robert to drive to Denver with proof of the federal government’s crooked behavior in his pocket. The roads are slick, but the light traffic helps, and, down from the mountain, the sun comes out, melts the snow. A weak favorable omen. Nothing will come out of Robert’s effort. The lid of history will remain in place. Just as it will in The Body of Martin Aguilera, whatever sheriff Manny does after federal government agents have murdered Maggie:

They walked many steps in silence.
“Maggie’s dead.”
“I’m sorry,” Manny said. “I didn’t know.”
“Why?” Lewis asked? “Why, Manny?”
Manny shook his head. “I just nodded and turned away. I should have seen what was happening. I’m sorry.”
“Were you scared?” Lewis asked.
“Yeah, I suppose that was it.”
Lewis looked at the lake. “Manny, they’re killing us.”
“I know.” [Everett, 1997, 163.]


Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. 1986. Foucault. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.

Everett, Percival. 1994. God’s Country. Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber.

—. 1996. Watershed. Saint Paul, MN: The Graywolf Press.

—. 1997. The Body of Martin Aguilera. Camano Island, WA: Owl Creek Press

—. 2004. damnedifido. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.


APPENDIX: Italicized Paratextual Fragments in Watershed

Categories are sequentially ordered (and numbered) from left to right as they first surface when reading the novel.

The numbering of each individual element (the occurrence of each italicized fragment) follows the sequential order within each chapter.

One notes an early diversity (all categories are covered in the first two chapters) that gives way to a narrower categorical field starting from chapter 6 onwards. This change creates in the table a visual “funnel” effect that brings out the importance of the Indian theme in the median column as the novel draws to its unresolved close. The “funnel” is obtained by drawing diagonal lines starting from the bottom of the “US-Indian treaties/rapport” column. The symmetry is imperfect. The diagram below with its virtual funnel, makes us tread readerly shores. No diagram ever comes into being to represent an objectified world, least of all a diagram resulting from fiction. On the contrary, diagrams organize a new kind of reality. They are not science, but political constructs, Deleuze warns (101-130) when discussing what he terms “les plissements de la pensée” (the folds of thought —my translation). How far my reading informs the table/chart, or vice versa, is a question that cannot be answered. How far have I been thinking my way to meaning from my consciousness Watershed stands out as more of a “race novel” than preceding works —at least one that probes institutional and personal unfairness and violence more insistently? The table/chart ensemble must be approached cautiously as it merely depends on the classification system I have adopted. Had category #5 not been created (it would also belong in category #2, but I felt a separate one was needed because disease, especially cancer, was metaphorically meaningful —see the “cancerous” hole in Robert’s cabin roof, p. 12, or the degenerative disease Robert’s grandfather is afflicted with), the already imperfect symmetry would vanish. Symmetry is pleasing to the eye; would the loss of it modulate my reading to any extent? Perhaps the table is the more helpful element in so far as it brings into the open the way the different categories crisscross the textual flow. Chapter 5 that precedes the narrowing of the field brings that out: it begins with category #1, moves to #4, then #2, #3, returns to #2 again (two fragments in succession), returns to #4 and ends with a return to #3. Chapter 2 further illustrates the weaving of the story and the fragments into the text. It offers two instances of the least used category, “bodily diseases” when the condition of Louise’s mother, a cancer whose presence is not acknowledged, becomes a concern for kind-hearted Robert who, science-minded as he is, never has one thought or one word critical of Hiram Kills Enemy’s un-medical assertions and cures.


1 The Body of Martin Aguilera, to some extent a companion novel to Watershed, also presents a plot line involving dirty military secrets. It takes its cue from nuclear pollution in the Four Corners area, which has long been a matter of public concern.

2 General Custer (who never actually rose to that rank in the military) appears in the flesh, very unflatteringly, in another earlier fiction, God’s Country.

3 All references are provided between square brackets in the essay’s main body

4 See or (two sites accessed on Dec. 23, 2004).

5 Karen first appeared as Laura in “Still Hunting” (The Weather and Women treat me Fair. Little Rock, AK: August House, 1987, pp. 89-95). Watershed borrows from this story and develops her father, Dr. Reskin, into a weighty character: someone whose deranged mind drives to suicide —a suicide juxtaposed with the dignity of Robert’s grandfather’s own, that is effected to preserve self-respect and bodily integrity by cutting an incurable degenerative disease short.

6 Two sources (Kappler, Charles. 1972. Indian Treaties 1778-1883. Mattinuk, NY: Amereon House; W. Churchill & J. V. Wall. 1988. Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Boston, MA: South End Press) are acknowledged in a brief foreword that also points out that the Plata Mountain landscape and the fragments presenting hydrologic data are complete fiction —except, perhaps, the one on page 21 that is traced to a US Geological Survey Paper 45679-T, dated 1981.

7 Charts purporting to visually delineate the courses of texts have been the object of recent research in France. See Théorie Littérature Enseignement n° 22-2004: «penser par le diagramme de Gilles Deleuze à Gilles Châtelet». Saint-Denis, Presses Universitaires de Vincennes.

8 When moving the identity issue to the macro level, Dr. Reskin’s conversion to born-again Christianity comes to mind, especially through his disgruntled wife’s taunt “At least I’m still a Jew” [116]. The subplots cohere.

9 Even without Leonard Hat’s first name that calls long-time prisoner Leonard Peltier to mind, the allusion is transparent to the events leading to the occupation of the church at Wounded Knee: “I recognized his name. He had been tried for the murder of yet two other FBI men on the Cold Deer Reservation in South Dakota. He hadn’t been convicted, I remembered that —much of the evidence of the government turned out to be fabricated or altered...” [133-134].

10 One may remark how, in a rather convoluted and paratactical sentence, the grammatical subject comes last.

11 See J. Harlen Bretz’s research, briefly accounted for in “The Floods That Carved the West”: The Smithsonian Magazine, April 1995, pp. 48-59. Much derided at the time, the geologist began to argue for “catastrophism” in 1923, showing that the topography of the Scablands in the state of Washington resulted from repeated gigantic floods which literally exploded their way through ice age dams where Lake Missoula now is. This is only one instance of the events that shaped the landscape of the western United States as the ice age ended.

12 Small capitals are used in the text, and the three words form a whole line.

13 The case for transposing from trope to social discourse is bolstered by a short story in damned if i do, in which Robert Hawks recurs in another adventure told in the first person. In “Alluvial Deposits”, Robert tells of a trip from Denver to rural Utah to carry out contract work for the state’s Department of Agriculture and the Fish and Game Commission. The place, a “dead town” [Everett, 2004, 54] born for a now closed mine, has no through road. Robert’s mission that consists in checking the flows of two creeks never comes to the fore. Instead, the story is made of slices of local life encountered in a gas station, in a diner, or witnessed from a motel window The narrative’s core is an old woman’s irrational racism, a Mrs. Bickers who carries her quarrel with racial difference on for undisclosed reasons. She shoots at Robert who is merely seeking a signature so as not to trespass on her property, and it takes the help of the deputy sheriff to get her to sign the form, and surrender her. 22 pistol. Robert who had originally looked down upon the lawman comes to admiring his professionalism. What can the title’s “alluvial deposits” be if not preconceived notions, past and present, of who a particular person might be depending on skin color or, in the sheriffs case, an apparently slothful countrified obesity? Without acknowledging as much to himself, this is a story in which Robert, the city man who loves the wild, learns tolerance for different people —as long as they respect him.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table:
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Teaches American studies at Université François-Rabelais, Tours, France. His research field is African-American fiction and history. He defended a Doctorat d’Etat “L’Enfance et l’adolescence chez les romanciers afro-américains, 1853-1969” in 1981 (Paris VIII University). He has published a number of papers in the field. Among his recent contributions: he has been guest editor of Callaloo’s John Wideman issue (vol. 22, n° 3), of GRAAT #27 “Cross Perspectives on African-Americans—Celebrating Michel Fabre”, co-editor of a volume on Jean Toomer’s Cane (Ellipses) and of a collection of essays on African-American detective fiction (CRAFT #3). He is a founding member of the Cercle d’Etudes Afro-Américaines (CEAA) and the Tours “Axe Afro-Américain” research team (JE 2450). He currently is a member of the Collegium for African American Research (CAAR) Executive Committee.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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