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Reading Percival Everett

Claude Julien
Anne-Laure Tissut

Introduction: Reading Percival Everett: European perspectives

Claude Julien

Texte intégral

1This volume of essays on Percival Everett’s fiction is a long-delayed celebration. At the University of Tours, in 2002, thanks to the support of the Conseil Scientifique, scholars specializing in African-American studies discovered a prolific African-American writer who refuses to confine his art to racial protest because it gags imagination. That occasion was a symposium organized under the aegis of GRAAT (Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours), in the presence of the writer. The organizer of the event, after first getting acquainted with this abundant œuvre, had assigned readings to colleagues nationwide in an effort to cover as many aspects of the author’s diverse productions as possible.

2Diverse is the word: as many as eleven novels set in various locations at various times and two collections of short stories were in print at a time when Erasure —a prime example of the way the author plays with literary genres and theories— was fresh from the printing press. Four more volumes have come out since, including a collection of poems. Percival Everett will tell you this diversity is due to his getting quickly bored, which compels him to constantly move to fresh terrain. An outside way to look at this, if I may suggest one, is the author’s natural curiosity, his interest in and sensitivity to societal issues, his need to react to the world around him.

3The volume you are opening is not solely composed of the symposium’s proceedings. Academic life imposes some ponderousness. We tried to keep up as more from the author’s pen was published. Each time we thought we were about ready, our contents were superseded by a new book. We have, as a consequence, decided to risk our necks out and go to print with what we have.

  • 1 Ralph’s writing of the “death of language” (Glyph, 132) is a likely allusion to Barthes’s essay “L (...)
  • 2 In “Quest-ce que la littérature?” My translation. Sartre’s exact words are “l’objet littéraire est (...)

4Organizing a volume of essays is always arduous, like purchasing just one hat to fit all heads in a family. Can chronological order be helpful to trace an author’s evolution? If it is thought to be so, was I going to favor a thematic arrangement, or prefer writing techniques? Should the essays be arranged depending on which incarnation(s) of literature (Western, naturalistic, experimental, satiric, etc.) the author had used for a particular story. This was a tempting classification to try out because the author takes such obvious pleasure in playing with form, with intertexts, with hiding and masks. Who is speaking, and who is who are very visible writerly schemes. And (as a teacher of creative writing) Percival Everett looks and laughs at Academia (at himself, too, naturally), and theoreticians. Roland Barthes is present as a character in Glyph (portrayed as a typical Frenchman with a keen interest in ladies)1 —and Jacques Derrida’s différance, a word that does not exist in the language, is actually used to head a section and naturally flavors some of Ralph’s ruminations. What is a word? What is in a word—in a chain of words? What is literature? “[A] strange top that only exists as it spins”,2 Jean-Paul Sartre answered.

The words on the page always travel in the same direction, whether left to right or right to left, or up to down or, as in the case of the short-cut seeking, bad poets, clockwise or counterclockwise in the shape of a gull. But there is no direction simply because the words are on the page and meaning knows no orientation and certainly no map. Meaning is where it is and only where it is, though it can lead to anyplace. Confusion, however, is necessarily only in one place and looks the same regardless of where it stands in relation to meaning. (Everett 1999, 153)

5The characteristic of a collection of essays is that authors bring their own literary persuasions in. Theories only go so far as theories go, and, luckily, fictions enjoy multiple lives. “The Period Is the Point” is a subheading in Glyph (173). A fiction is a diamond, or perhaps just a gem, with any number of points. Sometimes, narrative strands divide into new cells which create their own separate paths... to be followed, or not, by the reader. Percival Everett says he prefers to have a free hand as a writer: he does not think of potential readerly reactions in order to allow creation to evolve unbridled.

6So, I backtracked from academic temptation, thinking it might be advisable to go to Percival Everett himself (and my own fantasies) for an organizing principle. Reading Cutting Lisa again, a novel I always like to go back to, I began with the early morning prologue in which John Livesey, a semi-retired obstetrician, is phoned in to operate upon a woman whose husband has performed (botched is a better term) a Caesarean section. Not in any sort of emergency: simply because he felt he must use his position (one of power) to bring his child into the world himself. John is next made to leave Georgia to visit his son and family in Oregon. Although it is never mentioned again as the book unfolds on the other shore of the continent where the ocean is (to speak metaphorically) on the wrong side, this prologue, John’s mood, his finding that the husband’s action was “somehow beautiful” (Everett, 2000, 7), hangs like a pall over his mind. So the enigmatic title tells us retrospectively when we learn John’s daughter-in-law’s adulterous pregnancy, retrospectively. Two quotations separate the prologue from the novel, a slightly unusual configuration as such inserts are habitually made to precede the whole body of text. This is what the reader is given to ponder, exactly in this order and setting:

Set thine house in order:
for thou shalt die and not live.
Isaiah 38:1

Laughing lions must come.
Nietzsche, Die Begrünssung

  • 3 To step beyond predictable doings, to avoid falling victim to the surrounding culture and to read (...)

7These inserts, like John who is right-handed but “shoot[s] left-handed” (Id. 41), are contradictory. The first is a message for the approaching end, the second heralds a beginning. For John who has no use for the word of God setting his “house” in order means coming to terms with himself as an old man. In the second quotation, Zarathustra predicts that there will come strong beings whose laughter will eradicate moral sclerosis and make mankind burst free from the garments of convention.3 John precisely abides by these two contradictory recommendations. He makes his peace with what he is (an old man lusting after a young lady who is not really interested in him) and what he has been. Not a bad man, though one (so he confides to his sleeping son) who might have struggled to be a better husband and father, closer to his wife and family. But, mostly, he breaks free from received morality when he makes his daughter-in-law request an abortion. Thompson’s “somehow beautiful” action in the prologue, birth, is reversed. John’s own action sets his mind at ease for the future of his son’s marriage, especially for his granddaughter whom he loves so much. The straps that his son who broke his arm falling from a rock he (rather foolishly) insisted on climbing is freed from also symbolically apply to John himself. He has spent his whole career as an obstetrician working toward life. But in this private matter he has relied on Nietzsche’s lions.

8I have allowed those two inserts to guide me through this volume’s construction. Four parts that result from my choices as a reader of Percival Everett’s fiction, as well as of the essays, will come to your attention.

9The first is titled “To Write and to Laugh”. It begins with an essay built around the baseball metaphor in Suder. My own arbitrary choice that gives precedence to the themes and tone of voice at work in the author’s first-ever published novel. There follows an essay on the early short story collections arguing that the deceptive simplicity of an apparently traditional narrative style constructs an allusive space that, in the end, turns out to be elusive. Then comes an essay on an experiment, The One That Got Away, illustrated by Dirk Zimmel. This essay does not touch on the genetic aspects, the collaboration between accomplices. Instead, it delves into the interaction of the text and drawings to create meaning. An album destined to young readers plants hard logical questions in a playful representation of cowboys that are avid but not-too-smart. The last essay in part one deals with Glyph approached as an intellectual-intertextual challenge. Ralph moves from one prison to another. Prisons for the mind mostly. And the author (who says this book was one of the easiest to write because he thinks like baby Ralph) plays with academia’s vanity of vanities: interpreting a literary-philosophical skein.

10The second part is, rather boldly, titled “To REwrite and to RElaugh”. It begins with an essay on Erasure’s echoes that connect the mind to musical and literary giants, and ironically crisscross with fictional events (memory lapse, societal violence, actual and false identity) to form one of the author’s “blacker” stories. This editor’s irony comes into play with the decision to have the two essays on the author’s two “Greek” novels follow that on Erasure. Indeed, the rewriting of the myths of Medea in For Her Dark Skin, and of Dionysos in Frenzy, are two stories with which Percival Everett thumbs his nose at the “black experience”. The very notion of those books is a challenge to readers, because figures from ancient Greece are made to retell their stories tinted (could we use a polysemous word like “stained”?) with modern preoccupations. The last essay in this group deals with Watershed, a black-red novel that, among other paratextual elements, brings fragments of official documents and statements from victims of the system under the looking glass. Another way to signify on mainstream US attitudes, past and present.

11“To Live Die, and to Keep Laughing” is the third part. It begins with an essay on Zulus that could have been placed in the preceding part, as the A to Ζ vignettes that open each chapter are full of references to artists, writers and thinkers among whom Plato is prominent. Another of the novel’s sources is a feminist critique of western culture stressing bodily differences and shamefulness. There next comes a study of God’s Country that is set during the so-called “pacification” of the west. This is a devastating comedy, a mock epic satirical presentation of a spineless and racist rancher/cowboy as well as of the conquering army headed by “general” Custer who contemns blacks (represented by Bubba, the indomitable scout) and Indians equally. We remain in the west with the next essay that deals with the adaptation of Walk Me to the Distance that became “Follow Your Heart” in an NBC motion picture. The point the novel makes, how to accept the unacceptable to durably become part of a community, is roundly by-passed for the sole benefit of Hollywood conventions as characters change names and functions. The next essay brings together Watershed and The Body of Martin Aguilera whose plots are inspired by the fear that dangerous substances or radio-active sources of military origin are infecting the Four Corners area. Government forces are doing their utmost to keep the situation a secret, murdering people and disregarding basic rights of minority groups. These are highly political novels (detective fiction of sorts) in which history and morality mix. The last essay in this part brings up American Desert: a rollicking parody of American Myths and the media. Born-again religionists and the military thrive in the western desert, in an underground laboratory for the latter: scientists are trying to understand resurrection with an eye to making troops immortal. The press prosper out of emptiness and superficiality in a novel that uses the destabilizing tools of humor, even when Theodore Street decides it is best to unstitch his head and stay dead.

12The fourth part, “The Writer’s Own Turn” is preceded by a picture of the author made in 2006 at Grenoble University, and, at the end of it, another picture Denis Jourdain (a professor at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Tours) made in Africa: he had taken a translation of erasure (effacement) on a trip. The book was left for an instant in the shade of a tree and picked up by an African who started to read to a small surrounding audience. I thought this was a marvelous way to be discovered elsewhere. Otherwise, this part is firstly composed of an excerpt from a novel in progress. Secondly, there comes a statement the author delivered at the Villa Gillet in 2006, on the real and the fictional. Third is a wide-ranging interview made at Caen University in 2005. There next comes a statement the author made at Caen University during a meeting sponsored by MUSA, the acronym for “Maison des USA”. The volume ends with a checklist of Percival Everett’s works and secondary sources.

  • 4 The One That Got Away also results from cooperation. However, we know whose hand did what and can (...)

13Our volume has many lacks. Very much to my regret, no essay on Cutting Lisa or Grand Canyon, Inc. has been forthcoming. There is nothing on the recently published collection of poems re:f (gesture): these are pieces that first made paratextual appearances in the fictions, but they take on another hue on becoming constituents of a different body. The Jefferson Bible has been left out because only the introduction is by our author. A History of the African-American People [proposed] by Strom Thurmond. As Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid has also been left out. I felt this consistent trip into (serious historical) laughter must be first approached as a produce of creative team work. Collaboration was close and pens, or keyboards, interchangeable. Still, I felt it could not be approached as a fiction by Percival Everett in this volume.4 Our volume’s lacks lie side by side with incomplete considerations, as our essays opt for one angle rather than another. Freud could certainly have been more present in our study of Glyph that spoofs Steimmel’s “psychoanalytic shit” (85), or has baby Ralph write “Books and nipples. Nipples and books. My lips were good at closing about that sweet circle” (9), or again has him begin any number of sentences with “My mother....” Another lack is the study of Robert Hawk as a recurrent character found in “Still Hunting” (in The Weather and Women Treat Me Fair), in Watershed and, lastly, in “Alluvial Deposits” (in damnedifido). Recurrence and difference do make him special. Also, insufficient room is given to contemporary history in my own essay on Watershed which transparently alludes to the 1973 siege of the Wounded Knee sanctuary by the FBI. Another project, the possible intertextual rapport between George Orwell’s 1984 and Zulus has not been brought to fruition. This also happened to what may be called “twin texts”: for instance a narratological comparison of “How the West Was Won” and God’s Country. There clearly is much more work to do. Fiction is a field for readers to till, sow and reap.

14To compensate for the above lacks and regrets, I would like to end this introduction with a discussion of two of Percival Everett’s Western novels. Indeed, one of the ways to illustrate the diversity and creativity at work in the author’s fiction is to compare the two novels set in Wyoming that were published two decades apart, namely Walk Me to the Distance (1985) and Wounded, his latest fiction as of this writing.

15Though they use different narrative techniques (a first person narrator-protagonist for the second and an omniscient voice for the first) those two fictions are natural cousins in so far as they portray characters that are (for different motives) ill at ease in the world. Diversity does not exclude permanence.

  • 5 Henceforward named DavidD, to avoid confusions with David Thayer (who will here be called DavidW), (...)

16David Larson,5 who seeks acceptance on returning from Vietnam, after his sister Jill has cold-shouldered him on the phone, drives west from Savannah. His hope, to get reunited with a war buddy in Nebraska, is disappointed and DavidD drives on into Wyoming, shooting jackrabbits as he drives on — until he shoots a bullet into his car radiator and gets stranded in an out-of-the-way town called Slut’s Hole, thus (improbably) named, according to Mitch, the genial mechanic, “[b]ecause everybody comes here and then they leave.” (Everett, 1985, 5).

17DavidD stays in this area that is new and strange to him. He sinks new roots among utter strangers (in a town whose name connotes, ironically, a place or receptacle for rubbish or refuse), gets reconciled with himself on Chloe Sixbury’s sheep ranch. Sixbury is a widow, a crippled lady afflicted with a mentally retarded son, Patrick. DavidD finds work watching a rest area where, on an off-duty day when he is wearing his army fatigues, a Vietnamese refugee leaves her daughter behind, claiming he is her father. The authorities disregard DavidD’s call for assistance and Sixbury unofficially adopts the seven-year-old Kyongja whom DavidD has renamed Butch.

18When Butch is kidnapped, DavidD becomes part of a posse to find her in a snowstorm. Everyone suspects Patrick without mentioning him by name. The girl is found naked and bleeding between her legs in a cabin. DavidD shoots a fleeing “figure” (Id. 125) in the arm, then allows Patrick’s lynching to take place while he is sent to put the fire out in the cabin.

19A trip back to Georgia, seeing old acquaintances as well as his sister and brother-in-law, convinces him his home is now Wyoming. The state police eventually give up their search for the missing Patrick and the novel ends with Sixbury’s impending suicide because life after a stroke proves unbearable to her. Slut’s Hole, Wyoming, has become DavidD’s home, but the process is still unfinished. The object of his quest remains, like the horizon, at a distance, receding as one tries to get there. He will need outside help, someone to walk him to the distance. With Sixbury dead, he will be left with Butch and, possibly, Katy Stinson, the young lady whom he met on the plane to Chicago to assist him.

20John Hunt (whose last name may imply he is engaged in some kind of seeking), the narrator and main protagonist in Wounded is a black cowboy who has established himself among a Wyoming community, or, rather, in an area “on the outskirts of no place” (Everett, 2005, 50). Now a horse trainer, generally well-accepted locally —gruff as he may be with people— he lives with the ghosts from his past that are lightly suggested: a childless marriage with Susie who died when she was thrown from an unreliable horse he had warned her against.

21John lives in the mountains away from the town that has grown too large for his taste, in the company of Gus, a seventy-nine-year old black man from Arizona where he spent eleven years in prison for killing a man whom he caught raping his wife —a white man, which, to him, explains the rigors of the law. Gus has cancer and senses his approaching death. Gus approves of Morgan Reese, a bachelor neighbor who lives with her mother down the road from John’s ranch: Morgan has a crush on John who is hesitant to commit himself.

22Their world is disrupted when a homosexual is discovered murdered in town. This homicide for which John’s employee, Wallace, is suspected by the police, brings national attention on the small town and triggers a “gay pride rally” (Id. 50) that brings homophobic and racist thugs in the surroundings.

23DavidW, the son of one of John’s former classmates, Howard Thayer, comes to town with his companion. DavidW comes back to the ranch after breaking up with Robert, and John takes to the nice young man to whom he undertakes to teach life in the west. When DavidW quarrels with his visiting father and drunkenly runs away in a blizzard, John revives him in a cave where a spontaneous homosexual involvement takes place. Later, when DavidW is beaten to death by the thugs (he actually passes away in hospital after John has rescued him from their hands), John is left to face an uncertain future with, perhaps, Morgan’s help to walk him to the distance.

24The above too brief synopses show the two stories lead to suspended endings among social groups that are sick for one reason or another. Similar ingredients are shared: death and self-seeking in the absence of any definite symbol of renewal or rebirth —like the promise of spring for instance. On the contrary, winter reigns. Snowstorms and the cold spell danger.

25In spite of these similar ingredients, the two fictions are very different, if only because Percival Everett writes with his times. The stories are not limited by topicality, though. Wounded brings homosexuality to the fore, a modern situation but here fictionalized against such broader questions as tolerance and respect for life that also constitute the moral core of Walk Me to the Distance which, published a decade after the troops left Vietnam, is anchored away from the literature and movies that followed the conflict. Indeed, DavidD, an enlisted man drifting from his third year in college, has not been scarred by the war —or so he thinks. Unremarkable, having lacked the courage to escape to Canada, he returns to the World (a term not found in the novel under the acceptation of post-Vietnam days) very much the same. His tour of duty has not added an extra chip on his shoulder: he is disillusioned with life, as he must have been when he first joined the army, but not embittered.

  • 6 DavidD probably also unconsciously carries out Sixbury’s wish when shooting at Patrick and partici (...)

26The violence he encounters in Slut’s Hole, and that he turns his face away from is local. Murdering Patrick is, up to a point, eugenic as a lusus naturae is eliminated.6 Like the Vietnamese DavidD killed in combat, Patrick does not fit the local norm. His murder is home-bred. The rural west, home to core American values, representing purity and hope for the nation —Go west, young man!”— is sick. Yet it becomes DavidW’s chosen home, not just a place to live.

  • 7 The very lifestyle DavidD ironically says he wanted to protect when he enlisted for the Vietnam wa (...)

27An outstanding aspect of Walk Me to the Distance is the sense of the grotesque present in the town’s improbable name; or again in the drunken trip DavidD and Sixbury undertake to Casper in order to recruit a prostitute for Patrick’s sexual education; or again in Sixbury’s artificial leg that Patrick snatches away from her and dumps in the river; or again in the Homeric fight between Olivia and Cecile over the latter’s hooking grounds; or, to close the list here, in DavidD’s nightly unpremeditated stop over (with equally drunken Howard Dale) at the Stinson ranch to call upon the (absent) daughter of the house. There are no such grotesque passages in Wounded that presents a much broader and more insistent indictment of American society,7 although, true to Percival Everett’s habitual restraint, it does not actively denounce society’s wrongs either. Readers are simply given elements to build their opinions and feelings from. There is no preaching whatsoever, no voice-over comments on the book’s goings-on.

  • 8 The film adaptation is in error when picturing DavidD as a white protagonist. Perhaps the NBC scen (...)

28Race is hardly seen in Walk Me to the Distance. Light clues do place DavidD among black citizens, such as for instance his sister’s marrying a lawyer who claims he is the eighth member of the Chicago Seven; but race is not an issue at all8 with any of the protagonists. Wounded, on the contrary brings race matters up. So does Robert, DavidW’s domineering companion, through a very direct question that brings this answer up from John:

Of course I have, son. This is America. I’ve run into bigotry here. Of course, the only place anybody ever called me a nigger to my face was in Cambridge, Mass.” I let that sink in. “There are plenty of stupid, narrow-minded people around. They’re not hard to find. There are a lot of ignorant people, a lot of good, smart people. Is it different where you come from?” (2005, 52)

29John is not bitter about racism, a fact of life, one of the wounds he has to live with. The “black rancher” (Id. 49) and his “uncle” are well accepted locally, but Gus still smarts from the judicial unfairness that kept him in prison for so long. He is on the brink of death from cancer and takes charge of vengeance by killing the thugs (visitors from “the hate market” [Id. 67]) who have come to town with their racist —both Indians and blacks are their targets— and homophobic prejudice. But the issues are not presented in simplistic, either/or, dichotomous terms. DavidW, the victim Gus avenges, is a white man who (probably) suffered from the dissolution of the bond between his parents, from his father’s devotion to the golden calf (John recalls his friend’s idealistic ambition in college —to become a civil rights lawyer—) and is irked by his father’s new fiancée, Pamela, a blonde with an ostentatious bosom.

30There is no Native American protagonist in Walk Me to the Distance. Just an allusion: local people feel they are a “tribe” in danger to be killed “just like they did the Indians.” (1985, 166) In Wounded, Native American characters fall under the same threat as black and gay people. “Red Nigger” (2005, 111) is found written in the snow with the blood of a dead cow belonging to Daniel White Buffalo, Clara Monday feels she has been shot at on the range and the Indians ask John to speak for them because they distrust the local police. Rightly so, indeed: the officers remain idle in front of the two men in the battered BMW, or look in the wrong direction to solve the homicide —arresting harmless Wallace, himself a homosexual. One can say that to some extent the police share the dominant attitudes. Like Wallace’s born-again brother, opinionated and uncharitable, who does not offer any help. And like John himself who, considerate for others as he is, is at first hesitant to help Wallace by phoning his brother in Fort Collins.

31As our planet inevitably revolves around the sun, the characters’ lives in Wounded as well as in Walk Me to the Distance will grind on. The people make the best of what they are, weighted down by their natures and their pasts. John, for one, seeks around animals what he does not find in humans, or else in his own very close circle. What has the future in store for him as the novels ends? Wounded, as all of Percival Everett’s fictions, brings up questions, not answers. We know the town’s growth makes him feel uncomfortable, crowded, because his refuge in the mountains is threatened. He is troubled by his homosexual experience with respect to the tie he has built with Morgan —all the time haunted by the thought Susie mounted that horse to prove herself brave because she felt he disliked her for being inadequate. Up near the desert, a cave, both beckoning and scary, is the ultimate refuge —though not a place to be alone in. John is no misanthropist. He needs to relate to someone, not only to the surrounding world. Like his faithful dog, Zoe (who immediately takes to the wounded coyote), he needs to protect and teach. As an animal trainer, he works to restrain natural bends, telling Gus he must not allow the coyote puppy to chew on his finger, not even playfully. Neither the tiny puppy nor Felony, Duncan Camp’s huge palomino, is “supposed to make decisions” (Id. 19). Animal instincts must be redirected, animal fears must be overcome; but, to build a horse’s confidence, the rider needs to show understanding and to keep alert in order not to communicate his own instincts and fears to the animal. John’s philosophy is that even an “antsy” mule trying to wriggle his way out under the bottom rail of the pen can be trusted to behave if treated right:

I rode up slowly and looked down at him. Only his head and neck were out, but they were well out. The mule opened his right eye and looked up at me, but, in that mule way, he didn’t panic. He just let his head slap into the dust and lay there.
“So, what now?” I asked in a calm voice.
The mule didn’t move.
I dismounted and dropped to my knee in front of the animal’s nose. This was a potential disaster. If the mule got excited and tried to get up, he could be in real trouble. I couldn’t push him back because he might go nuts. I decided to back off and let the mule figure it out for himself. (Id. 42-43)

32A mule’s way to reason seems to be out of reach for humans, even the better ones. John tries to teach DavidW tolerance for his father’s behavior, but fails as the young man finally runs away into the blizzard: did DavidW feel John himself was unable to reconcile himself with Howard’s life choices? No answer is forthcoming. But the reader gets to see that John also can give in to an instinctive reaction born from a long-standing wound when he punches one of the rednecks who has just insulted him. Interestingly, the word “middle” suggests the body rather than the mind; and “coil” goes further by hinting at a snake’s instinct to strike:

I didn’t bother explaining to the malformed creature that he had chosen the wrong man on the wrong day to say the wrong thing. If I had, he might not have been so surprised by the quick left that started in my middle and launched a coil that had been tightening for years. (Id. 102)

  • 9 Percival Everett was raised in South Carolina. One of course remembers the controversy over the Co (...)

33When, at Gus’s request, John drives the dying DavidW on his own to the hospital (with the added instruction to mislead the police as to where the young man was found), he allows the old man to avenge violence, to settle an account with an unfair world. Not because violence is satisfactory, but, perhaps, simply unavoidable. The law of the frontier also applies in Walk Me to the Distance to eliminate an undesirable element that cannot be healed to fit in the group. There is, however, a huge difference between the two novels. In Walk Me to the Distance, the law of the frontier is enforced by two respectable, God-fearing family men while David consents to do as he is told and walks into the cabin to stomp the fire out. One could argue that he allows himself (perhaps out of love for Sixbury) to be sucked into the local ways. Emotion born from a sense of injustice prevails because Patrick’s execution is unwarranted and the particular circumstances (his being hanged with his broken right arm chained to his left ankle) are needlessly callous. And, of course, DavidD feels guilty later, understands his friend Howard’s going to the police. On the contrary, there is no shadow of guilt in Wounded where a black man takes things in hand with the complicity of an Indian who, incidentally, is the one to introduce the notion of frontier justice and to tell John, gently but firmly, to mind his own business: “This is the frontier, cowboy... Everyplace is the frontier. Take care of your uncle.” (Id. 207) One may argue that Wounded’s ending owes a great deal to the author’s current preoccupation with (black) self and culture. This matter (see note n° 3 above) is discussed in the introduction he wrote in 2002 for the anthology Making Callaloo. 25 Years of Black Literature. It also surfaces in such fictional contexts as the 1997 short story collected in damnedifido (2004) that is set in South Carolina, “The Appropriation of Cultures”. In that story, a wealthy black heir ironically drives around in an old pickup truck (purchased from a hillbilly) graced with a decal of the confederate flag spread on the back window...9 In Wounded, Gus and Elvis Monday, red and black, make themselves stealthy agents of the white lynch law. But the men they murder are guilty, unlike many a victim of white supremacists —past and present.

34As Wounded begins, John is at work paring his fidgety mare’s hoof. His heeler stands right by, a quiet horse used to inspire another with proper behavior. The word “heeler” summons a homonym, “healer” —a concept any reader of Percival Everett is familiar with because so many of his characters are vets or physicians. But, as always, nothing is simple. Real doctors and real vets working to help patients are side by side with false ones. And not all wounds can be healed. Some wounds can be accepted, as Lisa first nurtures the coming illegitimate child in Cutting Lisa, hesitant as she is between Elgin, her husband, and Greg, her lover. Some wounds can unravel only in death, as in The Body of Martin Aguilera. But memories will linger, only to be revived, in different hues, of course, as new books appear.


Works Cited

Cros, Edmond. 1980. Théories et pratiques sociocritiques. Montpellier: C.E.R.S. (U.E.R. II).

Everett, Percival. 1985. Walk Me to the Distance. New York, NY: Ticknor & Fields.

—. 2000 (1986). Cutting Lisa. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press.

—. 1999. Glyph. Saint Paul, MN.: Graywolf Press.

—. 2002. “Foreword”. Charles H Rowell. Making Callaloo. 25 Years of Black Literature. New York, NY: Saint Martin’s Press.

—. 2005. Wounded. Saint Paul, MN.: Graywolf Press.


1 Ralph’s writing of the “death of language” (Glyph, 132) is a likely allusion to Barthes’s essay “La Mort de l’auteur”.

2 In “Quest-ce que la littérature?” My translation. Sartre’s exact words are “l’objet littéraire est une étrange toupie qui n’existe qu’en mouvement.” Quoted in Cros, 1980, 3.

3 To step beyond predictable doings, to avoid falling victim to the surrounding culture and to read unpredictable literature is Everett’s wish for black Americans. But he knows it is wishful thinking (Everett, 2002, xvi).

4 The One That Got Away also results from cooperation. However, we know whose hand did what and can measure the symbiosis between words and drawings.

5 Henceforward named DavidD, to avoid confusions with David Thayer (who will here be called DavidW), a character in Wounded.

6 DavidD probably also unconsciously carries out Sixbury’s wish when shooting at Patrick and participating in the lynching party. Many times does Sixbury confide her qualms about Patrick’s life and future: “I’m his mother, but he ain’t part of me. Does that sound awful?” (1985, 12); “Sometimes I hate him. Sometimes I have no children.” (Id. 70); “‘To my son,’ she said. ‘May he know enough to die well.’” (Id. 83). DavidD says nothing specific to Sixbury on returning home after rescuing Butch:
He went to step by her, but she reached up and took his wrist.
“Thank you.”
He put his hand on her shoulder. “Yes Ma’am.” (Id. 129)

7 The very lifestyle DavidD ironically says he wanted to protect when he enlisted for the Vietnam war (1985, 18).

8 The film adaptation is in error when picturing DavidD as a white protagonist. Perhaps the NBC scenario writers did not realize Stagg R. Leigh, Stagolee’s double, was in hiding around, committed to writing about people —not race. The film could actually stand on relatively faithful ground with an all-white cast, but unfortunately makes mincemeat of the book’s moral issues.

9 Percival Everett was raised in South Carolina. One of course remembers the controversy over the Confederate flag being flown on the Columbia statehouse, which only ended in 2000 when Governor Hodges declared the debate had passed into the state’s history.


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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