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Reading Percival Everett

 | 
Claude Julien
, 
Anne-Laure Tissut

III. To Live ... to Die, and to Keep Laughing

Gods Country: The Mythic West Revisited

Yves Bonnemère

Résumé

God’s Country (1994) is narrated by Curt Marder, a white cowboy whose wife, Sadie, has been kidnapped —presumably by Indians. Curt decides to hire a black scout, Bubba, to guide him through the Wild West, hoping to find Sadie. The relationship between boss and former slave is reversed as Curt turns out to be a mean simpleton, and Bubba a genuine hero in an anti-western that resorts to mock epic mechanisms to develop into a sustained satire of white Americans. Custer’s army consorts with uncouth, violent and racist drunks. The book, a take-off of the mythic West plays with words and discrepant situations, moves from hyperbole to understatement and uses parody and stereotypes to achieve a devastating comedy.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Winchester, Ma., Faber & Faber, 1994. All page references are included in the text in square bracke (...)

1Gods Country1 is the story of Curt Marder, a white cowboy/rancher who is also the first-person narrator. When Sadie, his wife, is kidnapped by a gang of outlaws. Curt decides to hire a scout, Bubba, a black man, to help him find her. They set out for the Wild West in 1871, in the days of the Indian Wars. In this novel, a whole range of bad guys are portrayed whereas just a handful of men appear to be good guys: Jake, a young orphan of fifteen, Limbo, the trading-post owner, and, above all, Bubba. The latter, together with Curt, the rancher who tells the story in his own words, painting himself as the main hero, are involved in a succession of adventures meant to entertain the reader but also to satirize most of the characters. Satire requires a whole gamut of comic devices to achieve the purpose of a novelist who also proves to be a committed writer.

2All the elements of traditional westerns or yellow backs can be found in Gods Country: wide expanses of desert land, Indian settlements, army camps. Most characters are deliberately conceived as two-dimensional stock characters or stereotypes: cowboys, ranchers, storekeepers, saloon owners, poker players, Kansas City whores, clergymen, a black pianist, a stagecoach driver, a Jewish pedlar. Those minor characters seem to have been freshly borrowed from the dichotomous world of movie studios. Curt and Bubba play the major parts in the novel. Curt claims to be a real cowboy, a tough fellow, but from the very beginning what he says points in the other direction. He “had half a mind to ... say somethin’” [3] to the outlaws for taking his wife away. He is the feckless braggart who had rather stand aside than assail the band that have set fire to his homestead and abducted his wife. He postures as a strong cowboy yet he is nothing but a weakling. He fancies himself smart but is consistently stupid or gullible. For instance, he can’t tell a lady from a prostitute, or he believes Greenfeld isn’t Jewish since he hasn’t got: horns (like Moses).

3So, Curt is a western embodiment of the alazon in Greek comedy. He tells us he saved Greenfeld from being lynched by a mean poker playet but he lies. He portrays himself as a brave cowboy. He is congratulated for killing a very bad man, but he forgets to say that the killer is Bubba, not he himself. When Jake asks him for help, his first reaction is to refuse. When Bubba demands that he take care of the young orphan when he/she is in jeopardy he doesn’t show any generosity. He is self-centered and devoid of moral sense. He nearly forgets his wife after spending a moment with Loretta, a whore. Actually, he is more interested in the reward he can get for catching the kidnappers than in Sadie. Selfishness and money guide his life. Curt is also the typical racist prejudiced against Blacks, Indians and Jews. What is not white Anglo-Saxon is regarded dangerous and causes him to experience fear and anxiety. The image Curt has of himself is quite inconsistent with what he actually is. He is quite the reverse of the noble-hearted cowboy. Petty, mean, despicable, he is cowardly and passive. He shows neither grandeur nor self-respect in the face of danger. All in all, he is a flawed character even an anti-hero. He is a simpleton in a mock epic.

4Curt’s counter model is Bubba, the best tracker in the country. Unlike his boss, he is resolute and courageous. Once his goal is set, he gets organized to find Sadie, which implicitly gives him a higher status than Curt’s own. Bubba makes the right decisions, which ridicules Curt’s position as a boss. Born a slave, Bubba is now free, yet he still suffers from the prejudices that prevail. Nevertheless, he intends to assert his rights. He objects to being called boy or nigger as in antebellum days and reminds his employer that those days are over. He can’t put up with intolerance and racism. Consequently, he forces his conditions upon Curt who gets more and more dependent on him. Little by little, the rancher has to yield ground, therefore there is an ironic reversal of the master-slave relationship. However, though he is unable to handle the situation, Curt keeps trying to boss him around in a true pre-Civil War fashion.

5Bubba is quite the opposite of Curt. His decisions and actions do contrast with the latter’s. He is friendly to Jake who is fond of him and respectful to him. He does all he can to rescue the young orphan when she is kidnapped by Simon Phrensie, a clergyman who doubles up as a pimp. Unlike Curt, Bubba finds it natural to protect a child, whatever his or her skin color. He feels morally committed to helping Jake. Although Bubba appears to be a lonely figure, he has made friends with Indians: Happy Bear, Big Elk, etc. He differs from Curt in that he values their customs and way of life. He thinks the Indian camp is the best place for a child to be brought up. Although Bubba lives an unobtrusive life, he is the one the reader looks up to because he has high moral standards. At times, he is driven by anger to fight against hypocrites and racists such as Phrensie and the two soldiers. He can’t bear injustice. As soon as he hears about the Indian massacre, he decides to find Custer, the notorious general, in order to avenge his Indian friends. He doesn’t seem to belong to any group or class of people. So, he proves to be the good guy, the avenger who embodies freedom, morality and justice. The qualities he is endowed with make up a hero of him. At the end of the novel, though he is riddled with bullets, he goes on his way. As a Christ-like figure, he does not die —he cannot die because he is the embodiment of brotherhood and love. He suffers for mankind and nothing can defeat him because he stands for humanity. He isn’t a half god but can be considered as (a) god. By contrast, Curt’s failings stand out. The rancher is the butt of satire. He is nothing but the caricature of the lonesome cowboy, a braggart in a mock epic.

6Bubba and Curt’s adventures also make us discover Westerners and Indians. They remind us of standard westerns, epics of the West, the purpose of which is to praise and magnify white settlers and soldiers “pacifying” the West, as the phrase went in the post-Civil War period. But in Gods Country, resort to satire prevails throughout and serves to accuse and condemn white American society, its power and its culture as well.

  • 2 This city’s name alone conjures up a league of evildoers or conspirators.

7Curt’s “village” is depicted as the home of illiterates and ignorant men. In Cahoots,2 a city of sin, lots of drunkards, robbers and prostitutes roam the streets. A gang of outlaws disguised as Indians has kidnapped Curt’s wife. They now wander around the country. There is violence and danger everywhere. The law of the West is close to the jungle law. People kill for water holes [45]. In the wilderness, the Yuk Yuk brothers (probably Curt’s wife’s kidnappers) compel Curt to dig his own grave and his horse’s, and leave him to die buried in sand up to his neck. Behaving like mechanical animals, they only know two words: “Yuk Yuk”, which pokes fun at the degree of literacy in the West. In town, the Keating gang raids a bank quite easily at the very moment Curt is trying to cash a US government voucher. He is accused of being a robber just after the outlaws have left, in an episode which points out the bank employees’ cowardice. In such a world, money fashions human relationships. It usurps the place of friendship. For instance, Tucker, a rancher, thinks Curt is paying a call on him because he owes him money [20]. This type of exchange occurs whenever Curt gets in touch with any other white man. “...[T]his regional obsession with money” [36], to use Curt’s phrase, involves suspicion everywhere, anytime. When he is hired, Bubba demands that Curt write down a contract: “Your word will do until we get it all written down” [26]. Dishonesty seems to characterize white people who never keep their word. They routinely break treaties with Indians. Curt is a hypocrite too: he encourages Bubba to go on with his search. He is supposed to pay Bubba with a gift of his land, but he has lost it in a poker game. Besides, Curt doesn’t hesitate to betray friendly Indian chiefs and tells Custer about their whereabouts. Friendship is beyond him, so he shows little remorse, just scorn after his betrayal: “I told myself that all them people was just Injuns and I felt better.” [132].

8Curt’s ignominy is especially exposed when his racism surfaces, which is most of the time. The other whites are no different from him. The blacksmith contemptuously says he doesn’t “keep track of niggers” [14]. As in Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, children and blacks are rejected by adults. Antisemitism also makes itself felt. McBride, a mean poker player, can’t put up with names which don’t sound English. As for Curt he distorts the Jewish pedlar’s name, apparently an unconscious way of belittling the latter’s ethnic dignity. Prejudices are shared by everyone. In Curt’s village, people praise Bubba for his courage. He saved Jan Petersen who had been attacked by a cougar, yet Petersen can’t help mentioning that Bubba is black: “He is a good man too. It’s a shame he is a nigger” [37]. Throughout the novel, racism is alluded to and denounced. Curt can’t do away with his prejudices. He keeps calling Bubba, nigger or boy, which incenses his scout who reminds him that slavery is over. As a result, Curt resents being dependent on a black man who turns out to be superior to him. He feels uncomfortable when Tucker asks him if Bubba is a relative of his. He is upset one could think he is of black ancestry. He can’t bear the Blacks having the same rights and privileges as his. Curt thinks that Bubba is sassy: “He stared hard into my eyes and I knew I had to agree to his terms. That was a new experience for me, having a nigger stare right into my eyes. It kind of unnerved me, like he was working some kind of voodoo magic on me” [26]. Curt imagines the scout is endowed with supernatural powers. Evil powers, of course!

9Clichés and stereotypes are part of Curt’s way of thinking: he is convinced that Bubba is a good scout because: “a nigger or an Injun has got natural animal senses” for the job [51]. Therefore, he is also surprised that he can write, because an animal can’t! He thinks blacks are naturally musical. He fantasizes about sex and black men [67]. In other words, preconceived notions beset his corrupt mind. Although he realizes a young black of sixteen is hanged for a murder he is not guilty of, he is convinced that American justice is fair when the sheriff tells him he could have found lots of witnesses to say the boy was guilty [151]. So, American justice is content to justify the prejudices that most American whites share and that Curt illustrates throughout the novel.

10Curt’s views aren’t those of the lower classes only but the judges and clergymen’s too, as the example of the young black shows. Cheeseboro, a parson, doesn’t see self-effacement in Bubba’s humble attitude after the cougar incident but haughtiness and a lack of manners [38]. The Catholic priest that Curt comes across one day gets mixed up but actually confesses that he places money or, as he puts it, “The price of rubies ... above wisdom” [115]. So, here is a priest who has forsaken his vows, whose ideals have been corrupted by the prevailing values of American society. However, the most negative portrait is that of Simon Phrensie, another clergyman. He doesn’t really try to convert Indians to Chritianity but destroys them with whiskey. He makes them tell Heaven from Hell so that they may at least go to Hell! He says: “let me make you heathens with the right to enter hell” [99]. Phrensie also turns out to be a pimp who kidnaps Jake to make a prostitute of her. Thus, Christianity stands for evil; it justifies racism and injustice.

11As far as soldiers are concerned, the novel gives us to see no glorious cavalry of Hollywood fame. On the contrary, troopers do not at all contrast with the riffraff settlers Curt mixes with. “[P]racticing illiterates” [123], as one of them says, they are common, cruel and malicious, and actually enjoy killing defenseless Indians. They are proud of actions they should be ashamed of. When Bubba responds to the blue coats violently, one of them faints out of fear [177]. They are held up to ridicule because they are braggarts and cowards. They are heartless murderers and their evil side is further emphasized by Custer’s own portrait. The general is the best, or worst, coward of all. He keeps away from harm when he orders his soldiers to attack an Indian camp mercilessly. After the massacre, he rides in to cut out Big Elk’s scalp and he is cheered by his soldiers as, in the fashion of a conqueror, he struts about on his horse to celebrate a victory over defenseless people.

12Stories about Custer surface in a sarcastic portrait of the “golden-locked” colonel [126]. When Bubba has made the decision to kill Custer in order to avenge his Indian friends, he finds him in women’s clothes [182]. As in Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, villains are impotent or homosexual. When Custer talks to Curt about his sexual assets, he asserts his machismo but the ambiguity of the words he uses may be a hint at some interest in Curt. Indeed, for a background to the scene, Custer’s tent is “decorated up like a whorehouse” [127]. Does this simply suggest bad taste, or imply that he is having sex with his soldiers? Custer’s most salient features are those of a braggart swaggering about. There is something vain, theatrical in him. His portrait is quite close to the image the movie Little Big Man gives of the loser at Little Big Horn. Custer is also self-centered. His ego is enormous, childishly enormous. When he invites Curt to play chess with him, he wants to begin first: “I’ll be white. White always moves first” [129]. This ironic assertion of whiteness points out his prejudices. When he refers to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, he calls it the “Emasculation Proclamation” [128], a way of saying white men were robbed of their power, of their manliness in 1863, which, funnily enough, paints Custer’s sexual feats with the colors of ambiguity.

13So far as Custer’s views are concerned, he is a genuine racist. Reluctant to the abolition of slavery in the first place, he now fights against Indians. He thinks they may jeopardize the American way of life. He doesn’t want to give them back the hunting lands and fishing waters the whites have stolen from them. Since “The heathen has no respect for the ownership of land” [127], why give it back to him? As in Ishmael Reed’s work, the white man is the conman who deprives Indians of their land, of their dignity, of their religion. Custer makes use of fallacious, deceptive arguments to justify the despoliation of minorities. He doesn’t hesitate to say:

We must have more land than we need. It’s essential to our maintaining a balance between greed and hypocrisy, between unhealthy subsistence and needless, uncontrolled growth... It’s the American way. I’m talking about our way of life, man. And they’re trying to take it away from us. From me. First the slaves wanting to be free and now these red heathens. [127-128]

14So, Custer’s prejudices sum up all the meanness, cowardice, hypocrisy and injustice of the average white American. Custer is a long way from the image handed down by white American tradition: that of a flamboyant general. Like Curt, he is no hero at all. When Bubba and his boss break into the room of the prostitute he is with, Custer exclaims: “What in the name of Caesar’s army is going on here?” [183]. The braggart is so vain and conceited that he thinks he can vie with the most famous Roman general, but he is no half-god. The slaughter of Indians doesn’t prove his abilities as an officer. His behavior on the battle-field doesn’t arouse admiration but hatred and scorn. He doesn’t set an example to his troops, he can’t be proud of exceptional deeds. The fate of his country doesn’t depend on his victories in the West. So the reference to Caesar ridicules him. In Gods Country, Custer is an effeminate “bad guy” whose meanness is all the more emphasized as it contrasts with the positive description of Bubba and of the Indians.

15Except for Limbo, the old man at the trading-post, no other white man has established any friendly relationship with Indians. Limbo thinks highly of them because they “never tried to cheat [him]” [174]. As for the other whites, they share the same clichés and stereotyped views of Indians. Distrust of the latter prevails, most likely because white men keep them apart. If an Indian is friendly or generous, a white man usually thinks there is something fishy in the Indian’s behavior. When Jake gets a present from Happy Bear, Curt is suspicious: “You mean, that fat Indian just up and left you an entire horse?” [63]. He cannot help seeing tricks when Indians are referred to. The author’s irony also stresses the fact that white Americans are always talking about sharing to get the best share. Prejudices prevent them from thinking that one can be different. An Indian can’t be honest according to white settlers. A white man usually has a negative perception of Indians. On the contrary, in Gods Country, there is a positive portrait of them. Bubba gets on well with Indians. Chiefs like Big Elk and Happy Bear are Bubba’s friends but they disregard Curt, and even make fun of him when they set up a mock sacrificing of him. They do so to teach him how most whites behave to them, and how cruel they are. Quite unlike the villagers’ reactions to Curt’s misfortune, Big Elk and Happy Bear feel sorry for Jake when they hear about the murder of her parents. They are friendly to her though she is white. They don’t care about skin color provided the people they meet treat them decently, without any sense of superiority. As we have already seen with Curt, giving without expecting anything in return can’t be understood by white Americans since money is always central in their relationships.

16If ownership is part of the American way of life, it doesn’t rule relationships among Indians who have no concept of private land property, a fact which fascinates Bubba who himself thinks ownership of land is the root of all evils. As no one owns land (God’s land or the gods’ land), Indian society turns out to be devoid of conflicts. Understanding seems to prevail among Indians, that’s why Bubba wishes Jake were brought up by Indian women, who don’t object to taking care of a white child [163]. Such harmony does contrast with the depiction of village life or town life in white America where pettiness and meanness are widespread. White settlers seem to take delight in other people’s misfortunes. Although Indians have no morals according to Curt (since they don’t believe in a real God, i.e. the Christians’ God, and therefore can’t tell good from evil) their gods or at least their culture and customs teach them sharing and brotherhood.

17As we can see, the story deconstructs the mythic West. To debunk “God’s country”, it resorts to lots of stylistic devices. Indirect criticism is preferred to direct protest or invective. Understatement prevails over overstatement both for comic and satiric effects. Gods Country draws upon a variety of literary genres, comedy and satire taking up the major part. Some elements are borrowed from melodrama. For instance, after years of sin, Loretta the prostitute will take care of Jake and be a substitute mother for her [212]. This sharp change is a convention of melodrama. Jake, part of a stock situation, is also a stock character reminiscent of the heroine disguised as a handsome young man in the Elizabethan comedy of intrigue.

18Apart from those two examples, the comic prevails. Devices derived from farce and slapstick are many. There are violent quarrels, chases on roofs, but the best instance is certainly Raleigh Dunnick, a real bad man, a short man who unfolds himself into a frightening giant [198]. There also is the Simon Phrensie episode with Curt who starts jumping about to slap away the devil that the clergyman has passed on to him from Jake [209]. Such comic scenes emphasize fear, cowardice, ignorance and stupidity. Broad verbal humor is also used. Words are used mistakenly, such as “emasculation” for “emancipation”. Some of the characters’ names have been made up to provide a comic effect: Burp for the sheriff [147], or Epiphany Jones as the manifestation of a possible savior for Curt buried up to his neck in sand and left to parch to death in the hot sun [110]. Tall talk, a form of comic overstatement characteristic of the American West often recurs to depict a world of braggarts. To refer to the Yuk Yuk brothers’ stupidity, Curt says: “In fact, if you was to put all three of their brains on a flea’s butt, he wouldn’t notice” [111]. Limbo, as Curt puts it, “looked a year older than God” [173]. Extravagant exaggeration also characterizes Bubba’s violent response to a racist soldier. The scout’s boss “saw his fist push through to the back of the man’s head” [177].

19Verbal exchanges may also be viewed as conflicting forms of the Wild West with its gunfights and showdowns, hence a metaphoric use of fencing in numerous passages and dialogues with funny tit for tat answers: when Curt says “business before pleasure”, Loretta replies “pleasure is my business” [80]; when Curt asks the bartender if he has “seen a woman all painted up around here?”, he is answered: “All the women round here is painted up” [84]. Repetition also has a comic effect with the Yes and Nope pattern [17-18], or Curt endlessly referring to his misfortune. Expected reactions are turned around: when Curt inspects his raided homestead, he bemoans the death of his dog, and then the kidnapping of his wife. First things first: in a well ordered world dogs have precedence over wives. People are often caricatured and seem to act like automata, which results in laughter too. Repartee and witty exchanges are meant to entertain the reader and to deride Curt, the protagonist with a hulking mind, and other characters as well. At one point, the repeated use of “you” by a bank teller is very much like Harold Pinter’s theater of the absurd:

Do you have any sort of identification?
What?
Do you have anything that proves that you are who you say you are?
I know I’m me.
But how am I supposed to know you’re you? What if you weren’t you and you came in here to me saying you were you when you really weren’t you. And suppose I gave you the money and then the real you walked in and asked for your money and I couldn’t give it to you because you already had it. Wouldn’t that upset you? [141].

20Such a verbal feat brings us closer to understatement, the art of saying less to convey more. Events, episodes and characters are distorted by Curt’s prejudices and foolishness. The author’s aim isn’t to make us share the narrator’s views of course, but to expose what he stands for through an elaborate structure, a very subtle qualified interplay of ironies as well as a varied set of comic and humorous devices. In this mock epic, Curt’s naivety and stupidity are pitted against Bubba’s common sense and human qualities. So, structural irony plays a major part in Gods Country, a novel in which the writer develops a sustained satire on white Americans. Bubba’s very presence throws light upon Curt’s personality, that of a spineless braggart. Double meaning is recurrent throughout the novel as well as the conventions of the mock epic: elevated style and form applied to a trivial commonplace subject and a lower class character account for the surprising incongruity and discrepancy between Curt’s colloquial language in dialogues and the highbrow style with hackneyed metaphors and clichés, in the phoney comments he makes. Such apparent inconsistency enables the writer to resort to humor and irony. His presence makes itself felt. The style of yellow backs as well as that of authors like Walt Whitman is parodied. The opening pages are a take-off of standard westerns. Curt is speaking: “They [the kidnappers] finally left with a showy and loud display of horse-braying that I felt was unnecessary and in poor taste” [4], and further on: “And the big, unforgivin’ western sky smiled big and said nothing” [4]. The bombastic style of such sentences mimicks the frontier dime novels Curt has made a point to read for the sake of assessing realism in literature:

I had read what I could of the dime novels about the frontier, thinking it my duty as a citizen of it to make sure the truth be told, and generally the little books gave a fair account, but always failed to mention the smell. Hell, we hardly ever bathed and our stomachs were always grumbling and complaining and we wore our boots without stockings. If a vulture wouldn’t attack us alive, it sure as hell wouldn’t light on us dead. Out of good sense, we lived far from one another. We came together in bars and churches more or less to assure ourselves that our smells were normal and not an indication of coming death. [10]

21Such a take-off, in which Curt the boorish cow poke speaks from a later and more educated perspective (but minus any critical distance), at once debunks the mythic West and western literature as well. It of course provokes laughter mixed with scorn for the would-be hero and the West he is made to represent. The book, indeed, cultivates doubts about the glorious epic of the West. Satire is even more forceful through the ludicrous use of such an inflated style of writing with metaphors like: “Lady Luck was sitting in my lap” [30].

22Irony also underlies the criticism of religion. Curt, resigned to meet his death from, suffocation and thirst in his sandy grave, makes his peace with God by accepting His will. He forgives the Yuk Yuk brothers: “they was just doing what the good Lord intended for scum-sucking lily-livered bumps... It was their natural job” [113]. In other words, those outlaws do nothing but obey God’s will. Consequently, the God of Christians protects evil-doers. Irony is also the weapon used by Everett when Curt refers to Whitman. His stupidity is emphasized when he says: “And reflecting was an embarrassing activity for a man to admit to” [113]. Curt judges Whitman by appearances. The trivial details he mentions don’t blame the poet himself, but his narrator, of course. An inversion: “But reflect I did” [114] adds one more ironic touch to Curt’s venture into literary criticism. In other pages, taking off the atmosphere of horror films lays stress on Curt’s cowardice and fear: “We waited. Bats came out and whispered their wings in the air just above us. I squeezed my head in between my shoulders a little” [69]. Pastiche is also used to make a veiled reference to Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, a way of acknowledging the debt the novelist owes to him: “...there was a soft spot in my heart for hogs, despite some vague memory of a brother falling into a pen and being eaten by some” [83]. On the whole, irony and parody hold the novel together through the alternation of dialogues with Curt’s comments. Within the narrative itself, we sometimes find a scathing form of verbal irony, for instance when Curt’s land stolen from Indians is alluded to. Bubba is speaking:

“He’s [Curt] gonna pay me in land,” Bubba said. “Funny, ain’t it. It used to be your land. Maybe I should give it back to you when I get it.”
“You’re darker than we are,” Happy Bear said. “They won’t let you keep it. Do you believe they’ll let you keep it?” [60].

23Therefore, the whites are condemned as robbers who also make money out of religion. They sell Bibles pretending to offer them. As Simon Phrensie puts it: “A two-bit donation would not be out of order at this moment” [75]. Actually, the humorous way Phrensie asks for a donation blames Christianity for taking advantage of the weak and the poor [75]. Greed, justified by Christianity, is the butt of the writer’s satire here. Irony aimed at a group is also a means of deriding Curt. He isn’t very sad when he thinks of his wife’s lot He sheds a tear, just one for her: “A tear dotted the corner of my eye” [124]. His ignorance and stupidity are pointed out too when he thinks the young black of 16 should have stayed in Mississippi, and can only blame himself for having been hanged. The young black man’s death is used to deride the lawless law of the west:

I was jarred awake from a pretty solid sleep by a big noise. The light of early morning shone beyond the bars of the window. The black boy weren’t in the cell with me. I got up and went to look outside. The boy looked even younger swinging there at the end of that rope. Should have stayed in Mississippi.
Burp came late that morning and opened the door. He leaned there and looked at me sitting on my bunk.
“You can go,” he said.
“You mean I’m free?”
“Free as any American.”
I didn’t move. I didn’t stand nor reach for my boots. “How’d I come to be free?”
“Charges been dropped,” the sheriff said. “I ain’t surprised none. A hangin’ usually puts folks in a right charitable mood.” [150-151]

24Irony also underlines Bubba’s feigned surprise when Curt complains about the Yuk Yuk brothers: “They made me dig both holes.” And Bubba replies: “Your horse didn’t have to dig his own?” [160]. So, irony surfaces everywhere, when whites use black terms or even Black English, or when Curt the racist is called a nigger-lover by Custer’s soldiers [177].

25If irony is one of the main devices Everett uses to satirize white Americans and Custer, humor is another. Throughout the novel, humorous touches or remarks are to be found, but very often, irony, wit and humor are interwoven. Most of the time, Curt’s cues are unintentionally humorous for he is speaking, so he thinks, in earnest. They may express Curt’s cowardly or childish attitude. Humor may also be humor as an end in itself with plays on words: “Happy Bear reached over a fat hand and patted Jake’s foot” [59]. There may be a funny choice of words or of word order. The effect is both humorous and ironic as in: “then I heard my name tethered to Loretta’s voice. ‘Dirt! Dirt!’ Well, it was kinda my name” [84], or in several other instances: “I was immediately reminded by the lightness of my trousers of the emptiness in my pockets” [80]. Two rhyming words within the same sentence evoke a smile here. Harmless humor is also found when Curt pretends he is rich: “I took the dollar from my pocket in a way to suggest that it had company in my britches” [85]. Curt thinks he is crafty, sly, but knowing him, the reader cannot admire him; he only laughs because of the unintentionally humorous way he says things. Humor isn’t always harmless, and laughter often results from Curt’s naivety or foolishness. At one point, Loretta, the whore, suggests they go to her room, and Curt asks, quite surprised:

“What?”
“I said I think we should go upstairs.” She looked into my eyes. “I want to show you my room.”
“What for?”
“For the rest of what we got to do hon.” [85].

26Curt’s dumbness is also conspicuous in the conflicting choice of words at the end of: “some drunk snake turd what’s tryin’ to violate her improper-like” [91].

27So, throughout the novel, one runs across this tongue-in-cheek way of writing. Let us quote one last example. Greenfeld, the Jewish pedlar, finds Curt half-buried in sand in the desert. Here is their conversation in which wit, humor, irony and satire blend together for our enjoyment:

“What’s your name again? Greengrocer?”
“My name is Greenfeld.”
“Greenfeld,” I repeated. “Tell me, what kind of name is that?”
“Jewish.”
“Jewish? You mean you’re a Jew?”
“That’s what I mean.”
I blew out a breath. “Don’t that beat all.” I looked at him. “Turn around.”
“What?”
“Turn around. I want to get a good look at you. I ain’t never seen no Jew before. Come on, just twirl around once so I can see.”
He did.
“You ain’t no such thing,” I said.
“What are you talking about?”
“You ain’t no Jew no more than I’m an Injun.”
“Listen, Cochise.” He dropped to a knee and looked at my face. “I am a Jew.”
“Where are your horns then?”
“Christ.”
“See, see what you said! What kinda Jew goes around sayin’ that? I heard Jews
had horns on their heads, but your head’s just like mine.”
“Hardly.”
“Hey, how about diggin’ me outa here. I mean, I did save your life and ail that.”

“I’d like to thank you for that bit of western heroism, but I’m afraid I can’t help you.” He stood up.
“Why the Sam Hill hell not?”
“Got to go back along the trail and find my horns. I didn’t know they were missing.” [117-118].

28This last example illustrates the writer’s way of handling the comic, of satirizing his anti hero, and American whites through him, of debunking the mythic West. The writer is most convincing when resorting to indirect criticism. The skill with which he makes use of understatement gives us constant pleasure. Curt opens his story with “I saw the smoke first.” The point is that he can see with his eyes, not with his mind. From beginning to end, he is the smoking gun.

Notes

1 Winchester, Ma., Faber & Faber, 1994. All page references are included in the text in square brackets.

2 This city’s name alone conjures up a league of evildoers or conspirators.

Auteur

Has studied English as well as African anthropology. This was followed by degrees in sociology (General, Social and Tropical Africa). His Ph.D., History and Culture in Ishmael Reed’s Novels was defended in 1983 (Sorbonne). His involvement in African-American studies has been pursued through scholarly work published in a number of journals such as “Hoodoo as a Metaphor of migration in Mumbo Jumbo” (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000). He is a member of the Cercle d’Études Afro-Américaines.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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