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Reading Percival Everett

Claude Julien
Anne-Laure Tissut

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

Watershed and The Body of Martin Aguilera: The Representation of a Mixed People

Françoise Clary


With novels such as Watershed and The Body of Martin Aguilera Percival Everett has explored not a mere “description” but a “representation” of facts and people involving a mixed use of relativistic signifiers. This paper analyses metaphors that tend to be auto-referential and memory records with gaps and ellipses that provide the technical frame within which icons of greater abstraction translate the relations between people into three dimensions: true selves, masks and false masks. It pays close attention to the way in which the past revisited becomes a mode of approaching the world that emerges from the margins. It also investigates how the representation of a mixed people (in black, red, yellow and white) fits within the compelling puzzle of narratives whose fragmented technicality is constitutive of the books’ diegetic haunting patterns.

Texte intégral

1“Landscapes evolve sequentially”. Thus begins an excerpt from an 1873 document by Edward Parmelee Smith that opens Watershed, a novel where rebellious or stifling memories converge into a time/space for which there is no other representation than a fragmentation of the past into stories that intertwine.

2The baffling elusiveness of both Watershed and The Body of Martin Aguilera results, in part, from the multi-faceted, fragmented sites of memory. What is made available to the reader is not a mere “description” but a “representation” of facts and people involving a mixed use of relativistic signifiers, different modes of ironic expression, metaphors that tend to be auto-referential and memory records with gaps and ellipses that provide the technical frame within which icons of greater abstraction translate the relations between people into three dimensions (true selves, masks and false masks) and colour the world in black, yellow, red and white.

3The purpose of this paper is to study how the representation of a mixed people fits within the compelling puzzle of narratives whose fragmented technicality is constitutive of the books’ diegetic haunting pattern. Consequently, faced with a text that highlights the tension between truth and experience where the past, re-visited, becomes a mode of approaching the world that emerges from the margins, we shall examine the various elements that contribute to give to Watershed and The Body of Martin Aguilera an overtly, self-reflexive pattern. Such self-reflectiveness implies a dialectic within and between a number of shifting levels of vision; each of these levels having its own inner dynamics as well as dynamic relations with the others. At their simplest, these include the level of what is to be treated as fact —a murder. This is the level at which the explicit analytic frame of the fictional text, that can be perceived as a detective story because of the suspension of connectedness between perspective segments, clashes with or closes off contrary frameworks. Then comes the level at which the investigators (Robert Hawks in Watershed and Lewis Mason in The Body of Martin Aguilera—both of whom are mere private citizens) reincorporate their own implicit historical, social, political and moral points of view into the analysis.

Relativistic signifiers

4If we want people to reflect critically on our unthought world, we have to begin with historicizing the present. This is the politicized message conveyed in both Watershed and The Body of Martin Aguilera. To make sense of our world, we have to gather, carefully discern and interpret in multiple voices the diverse articulations of past and present worlds as well as the ruptures and fractures between and among them. Different meanings of the text emerge in The Body of Martin Aguilera and Watershed. In both novels, the reader begins to search for, and therefore actualize, the meaning of the story as the unknown factors in the text are the elements that set the hero on his quest. In fact, effect and response arise from a dialectical relationship between showing and concealing, that is to say from the difference between what is said and what is meant. How is the reader to fill the gaps and unravel the mysteries?

5In The Body of Martin Aguilera, the structure of the text firings about conflicts that have a variety of facets. Indeed, the various perspectives of the novel —whether they be those of the narrator, the hero or the minor characters— do not coincide. Whereas Manny Mondragon, the sheriff, pretends to look concerned by Martin Aguilera’s puzzling death —a dead man without a body— whereas Cyril Peabody, the veterinary surgeon is merely anxious to get back the unearthed body of Martin Aguilera so as to hide away from people that chemicals have been let loose, Lewis Mason, the black retired professor who had been Martin Aguilera’s closest friend, feels sad and lost. Not only is he ill-at-ease when walking up the dead still canyon, seeing and hearing no birds, but he is totally dismayed without his friend as he has never completely fit in with the Indians and Mexicans, even if they don’t treat him badly as an outsider. Everett strives in his novels to reunite thought and feelings, to transform an observation into a state of mind.

6In Watershed, the reader may sense that the story has several different meanings, layer upon layer, of significance. In other words, when the hero of Watershed, Robert Hawks, a black hydrologist, finds himself involved in a fight over Native American treaty rights, he has to fit together the pieces of a rapidly unfolding drama while connections to his own family’s long-standing civil rights battles, once called back to memory, emerge gradually. Understanding the struggle led by Louise Yellow Calf and Hiram Kills Enemy is, for Robert Hawks, understanding that his father and grandfather had been fighting for rights that were claimed and denied all the time. This process had occurred, for the most part, in secrecy and silence through battles fitting in Robert Hawks’s memory gaps whose structure is that of blanks inducing and guiding the reader’s activity with images hanging together in sequences that make the meaning of the text come alive in the reader’s imagination.

7In the interaction between the text and the reader, the use of relativistic signifiers maps out an overtly political and explicit process: Robert Hawks opens the narrative by recalling the situation that led him to be sitting on a bench in a small Episcopal church on the northern edge of the Plata Indian reservation, holding in his hands a vietnam-era-M16, with seven other armed people sitting on the floor and National Guardsmen surrounding the church. Robert Hawks is looking at an FBI agent sitting in a chair opposite him, hands bound, while another FBI agent is lying dead on the ground outside between two dead Indians. In the structure of comprehension which regulates the text-reader interaction, a racial ambiguity is deftly installed in Watershed at the narrative’s origin through codes that function symmetrically: on the one hand between the hero and the white FBI agents, and on the other hand between the hero and the Indians. The codes become clearer and clearer as the story tracks the hero’s encounter with the Plata reservation Indians. “My blood is my own and my name is Robert Hawks” states the hero at the beginning of the story. The way Robert Hawks asserts his “biological” identity conveys a feeling of pride, but also acts as a relativistic referential that contributes to making the reader perceive the main protagonist —the black hydrologist— as a fragment of a history involving people of the same blood in the meandering of an intercultural exploration. The story renders race a contested terrain variously mapped from diverse positions in the social landscape. By forcing the reader to construct racial categories from social clues, some of them highly ambiguous, Watershed elicits and exposes unarticulated racial codes that operate at the boundaries of consciousness. In order to underscore the cultural specificity of these codes, Percival Everett writes into the text the figures of the hero’s father and grandfather. What the reader gets to know is that both of them were “so much alike... They hated America, policemen, and especially churches” (3). The sentence that comes next, “When I was twelve, I went to live with my father and grandfather, whom ‘I was just like,’ and for four and a half years until I left for college, I watched the two of whom it would seem I was a pretty faithful copy” (4) gives the reader an inkling of what is to be inferred about the hero’s personality —the same blood, same likes and dislikes. Robert Hawks’s antagonism to Christianity, to the police and the FBI is pivotal to the mapping of racial relations in the novel. The evocation of the discussion about the KKK he had with his grandfather during the hunting party for wild turkey creates the frame of racial oppression:

“What would you do if some KKKs grabbed your grandfather right now?” He asked as he knelt to observe some sign, his fingers moving over the ground that had been scratched up, feeling the freshness of a bird’s excrement.
“I’d run for help,” I said.
“To whom would you run?”
“The police,” I said.
He nodded, then sat on the ground and looked at me.
“When you’re older,” he said, “the police will stop you and search you and, if they don’t shoot you, they’ll take you in and say you look like another ‘nigger.’ They may not use that word, but that’s what they’ll mean. It’s happened to me. It’s happened to your father.” It will happen to you.”
“So, I shouldn’t go to the police?”
He smiled at me. “Yes, you should go to the police. Where else can you go?” (
Watershed 14)

8This frame of racial oppression is to be echoed several times in the novel. As the story unfolds, the underscored cultural codes are finally elaborated into a new way of looking at the social and religious constructs of whites with the scorn they show to the black man as illustrated by the waitress’s attitude at the Stirrup Tavern in Rivertown:

The waitress came and looked at Davies [the FBI Agent]. “You want any food, honey?”
“The chili,” Davies said. “I hear it’s good.”
“The chili sucks,” the waitress said.
“Why didn’t you say that when I ordered it?” I asked.
“I don’t like your looks.”
I chuckled at first and then, looking at her face, I came to understand. I said, “You mean the fact that I am black.”
“Posssibly.” (
Ibid 54)

9The harsh relations that the racial construct imposes on the black man rouse a feeling of loss in Robert Hawks: “I was feeling lost, too. I wanted to eat just so I could do something familiar” (66). The brutal attitude of the police stands in tension with the promise of the Declaration of Independence of an equal right to the pursuit of happiness.

10In fact, in Watershed the whole text highlights the tension between truth and experience with the unfolding of consciousness treated in historical, civilizational systems while in The Body of Martin Aguilera the historicizing of the present is to be understood in terms of awareness and experience. Indeed, in this novel Everett shows how consciousness reveals itself in passing encounters such as those Lewis Mason has with the mixed people that live near Plata’s canyon, that is Martin Aguilera’s canyon. Let us focus on some of the most striking ones. There is, assuredly, Lewis Mason’s encounter with Salvador Alvarado, a member of a Catholic sect, the Penitentes, whom Lewis suspects of thieving Martin Aguilera’s body in order to bury him in some secret grave as they are used to doing with their dead. Another encounter retains the reader’s attention, it is Lewis’s meeting with Ignacio who shows the way to Lobos canyon where Martin’s body has been buried in a shallow grave. Nor can the reader help being struck by Lewis’s encounters with Cyril Peabody, the veterinary surgeon, most particularly when Lewis Mason finds out the malicious intent of a man who is blackmailing him into digging up Martin’s body — “Lewis looked at the man’s face. He wasn’t the same Cyril Peabody, for the eyes were cold, the face hard. ‘Who are you? What’s going on?’” (The Body of Martin Aguilera 114-115). What is left out of the accounts of these encounters is the intended image of surprise about what caused Martin Aguilera’s death, up there in the canyon, an image which the reader is supposed to fill in for himself. Now the aesthetic nature of this process arises out of the fact that all the sequences of aspect are presented from one particular point of view, Lewis Mason’s: “‘I think the army or somebody let something loose up there, chemicals or something, and it’s killing everything. There’re no animals up there, not even bugs.’ Lewis was starting to cry.” (155). How is the reader who is not fully conversant with all the elements of the different backgrounds to reach the truth?

11The counterfactual ‘truth’ depends on a creative confrontation of perspectives. In Watershed the reader’s perspective on the Indian community of the Plata Reservation opens up on a vision of genuine simplicity, whether it be through the relations Robert Hawks entertains with Louise and Big Junior, that originated in his helping Louise by giving her a lift, or through the relations he entertains with Hiram Kills Enemy or with Billy the shaman, that are based on understanding and mutual respect, as can be seen in the description of the ceremony that takes place at the Indian church:

The singing was repetitive, hypnotic, and beautiful. Much of the beauty was in the disposition of the singers and the listeners’ reception. The tepee became almost hot from the fire. There was an occasional breath of cold air when Billy had to leave and enter with more wood. (...) The men took turns praying in Plata, occasionally offering some words of English —for my benefit, I believed. (81-82)

12To understand the underlying basis for such privileged relationships, the reader may take a hint from the linguistic representation of the Plata Indians characterized by the simplistic bluntness of their answers when they are questioned by Robert Hawks,

“Do you know the Yellow Calf family?” I asked.
“Do you know Louise?”
“Have you seen Louise?”
“Do you know where she is?” I asked.
“Yes.” (78)

13But, finally, abrupt simplicity turns into complexity when Louise Yellow Calf flees the reservation and when her bluntness provides different kinds of understanding that draw the reader’s attention to the gaps embedded in Robert Hawks’s narrative: the things that were not said, the unnamed, the unmentioned, unspeakable thoughts, the unspoken. The sets of puzzling relationships that develop between the black hydrologist and the Plata reservation Indians may be taken as emblematic of the process of global integration of the multicultural play of difference. The use of simplistic bluntness in the Indians’ speech as a signifier does not aim at evoking the Indians’ reservation either as a protected haven or as a preserve of culture but rather as reflecting —through the Plata Indians’ inability at joining the American public sphere— their instinctive act of resistance, their attempt at asserting their identity. It amounts to a process in which a self-chosen difference turns against or stands in contrast to a functionally imposed diversity of speech, manners and attitudes. In The Body of Martin Aguilera, the reader is faced with a selective process that brings about an oversimplification of the Mexicans’ culture and religious traditions —which results in a division of the people of the area into categories of individuals that range from the dominant to the negated.

14In fact, through an insightful handling of relativistic signifiers, Percival Everett gives the reader to understand that social actors themselves create rules by which they make sense of their conduct and govern it. So doing, Everett introduces two main levels of consciousness into his narrative. The first level is clearly that of the actor in the process of enacting conduct —whether this actor be FBI Special Agent Davies, Louise and the Plata Indians (in Watershed) or Cyril Peabody, the treacherous vet, sheriff Mondragon, Ignacio and Salvador, the Mexican Penitentes (in The Body of Martin Aguilera). The reader can then grasp the deeper meaning of the level of the actor-narrator (with Robert Hawks in Watershed or Lewis Mason in The Body of Martin Aguilera) who surveys his and other people’s actions either retrospectively or prospectively. Percival Everett puts special emphasis on this second level of consciousness with the character of Robert Hawks bringing the reader back, through immersion in the culture of the Blacks’ Civil Rights Fight, to a reading of the figure of the grandfather as a site of resistance and integrity in the fight for Civil Rights:

The story of my grandfather’s presence in Atlanta and willingness to testify was reported several times in our city newspaper, along with a photo that didn’t look much like him and some scary editorials and letters to the editor. My grandfather was called a troublemaker, a black militant, a criminal, and —by someone who allegedly signed her letter ‘A Black Woman from Hopper’— he was called a “no-good-who-was-old-enough-to-know-better”. My father called two days after they left for Atlanta and told me, after my insistent inquiry, that the prosecution was trying to keep my grandfather from taking the witness stand. (150)

15The meaning of this passage seems to offer a definition of Percival Everett’s linguistic encoding as carried out through a playful approach based on the use of various modes of irony, most conceptual schemes being iconic. Our point here is that the explicit use of illustrative metaphors can operate in layers, with a surface metaphor being used to illustrate a deeper metaphoric meaning.

Aesthetic perception

  • 1 The transposition to the American Indian Movement is obvious.

16The re-visited past affirms reality. In Watershed Robert Hawks’s evocation of people is compounded by graphic images. Louise Yellow Calf, for instance, is introduced, from the start, as “a very short woman” who “was the size of a child” (9). Robert Hawks pursues, “I shook her hand, her little bones feeling unreal in my grasp, feeling as though they might break” (10). Hawks, who has given Louise a lift, humorously recalls, “the shoulder strap bothered her face and so she put it under her arm” (9). When the narrator builds up his sentence illustratively, juxtaposing and opposing the two phrases —“bothered her face” versus “put it under her arm”— their appropriateness and fit is constituted of their analytic utility. The description given draws the reader’s attention to a turn of phrase that is no doubt jocular, but perhaps deceptively so. The reader is struck by the coexistence, within the same phrase, of humour and seriousness. In the process of image-building, the author explicitly instructs his reader to imagine something. In this scene, the reader is given to see Louise both as a minute character and as one who is ready to act resolutely. The figures of speech isolate and underline the central idea as they give the reader an inkling of what the author is after. Behind the playful approach, the wilful, resolute character of the American Indian militant, a member of the American Indian Revolution1 is adumbrated at the very start of the novel to be gradually amplified as the narrative develops.

17Playful approaches abound in Percival Everett’s writing, reflecting an epistemological strategy. In Watershed and The Body of Martin Aguilera, the various facets of irony, all of them forms of simulation, are rhetorical devices which give emotional intensity to the text. In The Body of Martin Aguilera when Lewis Mason cleverly avoids letting the vet’s assistant know that he is carrying a dead squirrel whose flesh is unaccountably raw, irony functions through conscious naïveté and understatement:

Lewis hurried to the desk of the assistant who immediately began trying to steal a peak into the bundle.
“And who do we have here?” she asked.
“This is my pet and
I want to see the doctor.”
Unable to see anything, she readied a pencil over a form. “Name?”
“Lewis Mason.”
“Pet’s name?”

“What is Mortimer, Mr Mason?”
“Mortimer is sick, ma’am.”

She looked up.
“Mortimer is dead.”
“I am sorry,” she said. “What was Mortimer?”
“Alive.” (23-26)

18These ambiguities are contained within game metaphors that disjoin people. At the beginning of the dialogue, Lewis Mason and the vet’s assistant are ostensive equals under the rules of social life which provide a pre-ordained structure. But the use of rhetorical irony with the stating of a meaning that is ambiguous and with the implication that the narrator, the reader and the other characters are free to interpret the meaning in a sense opposite to the conventionally assumed one. Here the use of this mode of ironic expression is as an instrument for the narrator-actor to put down his enemies with.

19Through various forms of indirection, irony is used in Everett’s novels to compensate for the limiting simplicities of language without sacrificing emotional impact. Besides, the images are basic to ideation. They have the function of stimulating the reader to relate to facts —such as the poisoning of the lake by chemicals in The Body of Martin Aguilera or the discovery of an unsuspected dam and amazing pipeline in Watershed. But these facts are not ‘given’ to the reader. They must be discovered as the images give rise to aspects of a hidden, nonverbalized truth that must be synthetized by the reader through the representation of a mixed people achieved with a kind of modesty of statement involving a dry humour and, as far as the main protagonists are concerned, a romantic irony suffused through dialogues, such as those where Robert Hawks and Louise Yellow Calf (in Watershed), or Lewis Mason and Maggie (in The Body of Martin Aguilera) confide in each other. All is tragicomic. All events in these two novels are to be seen against inevitable disappointment and defeat. Whatever the subject, the theme remains the same. The reader imagines and builds a romantic hope that collapses in romantic despair, evoking an awareness of the way Everett employs irony, in the direction of despair or as a positive mode of perception, suggesting that the rational approach has limitations.

20Reading implies knowledge and interpretation. In Everett’s novels, all knowledge is perspectival, and therefore metaphoric, including various types of ironic expression with rhetorical irony as a major mode. On the level of face to face interaction, Watershed offers a playful exploration of love, as illustrated in this dialogue between Robert Hawks and his girl-friend Karen,

[Karen] “Promise I’ll die first.”
I tucked in my shirt tail.
[Robert] “What are you talking about?”
“Promise me that I will die before you.”
“I don’t think I could stand being left alone.”
“Okay, you can die first. Let’s go down to dinner.” (110)

21The chief mode of Everett’s irony is verbal. What can be noted in his use of rhetorical irony is the stress put on the transcendent perspective that is achieved through a compact of superior knowledge between the narrator and the reader. Thus, the conversation that goes on between Robert Hawks and the Plata Indians members of the American Indian Revolution (Charlie Runs Fast and John Hat) highlights the fact that the reader must track down references for elucidation:

“If you’re an Indian you don’t believe in civil rights. It simply doesn’t make sense. They come and talk about equality again and again, but they always lie. Right, Leonard?"
Leonard Hat nodded.
“Besides,” John Hat continued, “we’re not American citizens. We’re Indians. We’re American Americans. You know, when we get this continent back, all you black people will have to leave.”
They all laughed and I found myself laughing softly with them. (138)

22The above passage illustrates the linguistic strategy at work in Watershed. The off-hand tone and ironical viewpoint reveal deep concatenations of meaning raising the issue of the coexistence of seriousness and humour as well as the question of identification. Can puns and jokes be traced to some authorial consciousness? They, no doubt, provide opportunities to gauge the writer’s intent. Everett is clearly playing with words by trying to juxtapose several meanings, which leads to a confrontation of the interpretive relationship between reader and text. The reader is thus made aware that cultural allusiveness may be approached from the angle of playfulness, as when Robert Hawks confesses that he feels better at ease in an Indian reservation than in an American tavern: “Everyone else was white and I understood why the reservation had felt comfortable to me.” (53).

23The same ironical viewpoint allowing to refer allusively to political concerns can be noted as Robert Hawks, who is getting more and more involved in the Indians’ struggle against the federal government, starts investigating the dam built illegally on Dog Creek: “I sat on the wall of the dam and looked at it. It was an expert job. Certainly no campers had come up and built it in a week-end. Beavers weren’t the cause —they have no facility with concrete” (157). In such a mode of awareness, the taken-for-granted world of white hegemony and minority groups’ subservience is disconnected or distanced. Perceptual and compositional activity aiming at asserting the values of multiculturalism predominate over classificatory thinking. In naïve consciousness, the reader commonly sees what he is expected to think and see. The well-established social categories (the hierarchical position of the F.B.I. and the predominance of the Christian Church over the Native American Church) are embedded in the world he perceives. Now, in Watershed, in the aesthetic consciousness introduced through playful angles of approach and flashbacks, these relationships are reversed. The F.B.I. is here symbolized by a tipsy Caucasian woman while Christians are seen in flashbacks as hypocrites upholding hateful lynchings:

He [Robert’s grandfather] took me to hunting when I was ten and told me that if I ever started to be deceived by that “Jesus crap” he would kick my ass. “That man I saw hanged,” he said, “those Christians had cut off his testicles and stuck them in his mouth.” He studied the reeds for signs or movement. “It’s not their color, it’s their god.” Then he said, “And don’t marry a Christian.” He had deep-set, dark brown eyes and he said, as he reloaded, “They’re sick. They believe in one way, their way.” (122)

24The dramatic model affords Everett an ironic dialectical vehicle of description and analysis. Meanings emerge, layer by layer, each illuminated by the others. The narrator-actor is not merely what he seems. He is both autonomous as well as unfree in a context of dramatic irony Everett resorts to because of its dialectical character. In The Body of Martin Aguilera, Lewis Mason is eventually responsible for Maggie’s death while seeking to save her. All the ironic modes used in Everett’s novels have at least two features in common, the opposition of incongruent images, frameworks or events and a transcendent perspective in which these opposites unite. Everett makes readers ‘think’ with their eyes. What in American experience was first grasped pre-predicatively eventually comes fully to consciousness. What was originally introduced as perceptual characteristics of individual groups (such as Indian simplicity or Mexican stubbornness) is finally seen as precise and determinate clues to a fair understanding of people and their own type of behaviour.

Approaching the world from the margins of knowledge

25While 18th century slave narratives recorded a life guided by divine providence that served as a means of resolving an autobiographical plot by endowing it with a spiritual meaning of equality, while Phillis Wheatley wrote poems imbued with biblical parallels as exemplified by those lines drawn from “On Being Brought from Africa to America”,

Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain,
May be refined and join th’ angelic train. (Wheatley
in Mason 12)

26Everett stages a narrator-actor who discards religion, embedding instead a message in his writing of identity as the expression of difference. Both Watershed and The Body of Martin Aguilera describe the narrator’s movement towards knowledge, but they also confirm that the right mode of approaching the world has emerged from the margins of knowledge. As the novels take, as it were, culture in the original sense of cultivation, as they explore the overlap with the Black Civil Rights history (this is to be observed in Watershed) or some aspects of Mexican traditions (illustrated in The Body of Martin Aguilera), they highlight the expression of difference and redeem it in a way that is reminiscent of Hegel’s message in Phenomenology, namely that it is the memory of bondsmen rather than the monuments of the masters that can assure the survival of humanity. The social world is pictured by Everett as an unfolding story. Dramatic tension crops up from the confrontation between the various characters since real selves are opposed to masks. In The Body of Martin Aguilera, while Lewis, a black man, Maggie, a Japanese woman, and the Mexicans Salvador and Ignacio are concerned with the moral issue of achieving their aims which are, respectively, the quest for truth and the respect of tradition, the treacherous vet surgeon, who is involved in the spread of chemicals let loose by the army, is mainly concerned with the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression of reliability before blackmailing Lewis Mason into unearthing the body of Martin Aguilera.

27Through aesthetic perception, Everett refashions original characters out of mundane ones. Distance, or disinterested attention, is introduced by Everett between his heroes and the surrounding world. Both Robert Hawks, the black hydrologist of Watershed, and Lewis Mason, the black retired professor of The Body of Martin Aguilera, live in withdrawn places that stand as shelters as well as regenerating wombs. Distance, here, means psychical rather than physical distance. It refers to di-stance, a two-dimensional mode of perception, an ontological standing apart from conventional categories. Everything is at once infinitely close and infinitely remote between Robert Hawks and the Plata Indians or between Lewis Mason and the Mexicans. On the one hand, it must be admitted that the closeness lends presence. In Watershed Robert Hawks gives Louise Yellow Calf a lift, welcomes her in his cabin rescuing her from the frost, goes back to the reservation, drives her mother to hospital in his truck, attends the religious ceremony at the Native American Church, meets Louise at the zoo, gets involved in the Indians’ revolutionary struggle. On the other hand, the remoteness can be felt in Robert Hawks’s complete withdrawal from the world:

I didn’t talk about politics, didn’t respond to talk about politics, didn’t care about what I read in the papers and didn’t feel any guilt about my lack of participation in those issues of social importance. I did not know or associate with many people at all, trying at most turns, to avoid humans, having in some way taken my grandfather’s missing step —complete removal. (152)

28Wilful remoteness can also be observed in The Body of Martin Aguilera when Lewis Mason confesses that he has always preferred to stand apart and shun people’s company:

Lewis wasn’t much on talking to people beyond greetings and how-do-you-do’s and it struck no one odd that the grumpy old fart from up in the hills said nothing at all. (11)

29In the long run, remoteness permits self-reflective awareness, which, for Robert Hawks is a way to understand oneself by understanding one’s past, “a longstanding, personal quest to understand my grandfather” (153).

Concluding Argument

30As the text unfolds, it articulates the paradox of aiming at objectivity by reporting on the people surrounding the hero while giving the reader to understand that the layers that determine each story contain the inexpressible. In fact, Everett emphasizes the objective features of the hero’s experience. The colorful arrangement of the images provides a significant means to scornfully implement the search for the truth in the progression of the narrative. The reproduction of attitudes, gestures, faces are thus basically signs that may remind the reader of the original —archetypal— figure that is supposedly understood: the rough cops, the hysterical sex-driven girlfriend, the tormented Christian middle-class man, the diffident Indian, the resolute Indian militant, the small town sheriff, the stupid secretary, the religious Mexicans. There is in these two novels a whole web of intricate narratives that are entangled, interwoven and made even more complicated by the impossibility of arriving at a complete understanding of what really happened.

31In the picturing of a mixed people, images evolve into image-ideas. Metaphors are used as a key to model building. Indeed, the FBI or the AIR (American Indian Revolution) may be thought of as social metaphors while the representation of the Christian Church can be classified as a mode of social exploitation, “I didn’t need Christianity to dismiss people”, Robert says (194). In contrast, the Native American Church is described as the ritual enactment of society. Likewise, sociograms and chemical representations of sets of phenomena (85) are the most abstract iconic metaphors written in the text in so far as they represent synthetic, contextually embedded statements. Considered from the perspective of symbolic realism, Everett’s approach is a circular one. Similarities between secret societies and the FBI, or the assimilation of Christianity with oppression imprint their stamp on the reader’s mind. What the reader discovers is context within contexts: the black hydrologist with the white middle class family, then with the Indian fighters, or with the FBI, or again with the members of the Native American Church in Watershed —the contents of each being described through their relationship to each other and to the whole.

32Icons of greater abstraction, used as metaphors of opposition written into the text, introduce in the two novels a perspectival knowledge that, in the moves from conventional paradigms to original ones, serves as a self-reflective function for the heroes who are fighting against odds and pondering over what their country is to them and what they are to their country:

I didn’t believe in God, I didn’t believe in America. I simply didn’t care, wouldn’t care, refused to care. I was attempting to reconcile this with my new, if accidental involvement with the American Indian Revolution and my need to understand what was going on. (Watershed 153)

Maybe if a bullet hit him in the back of the head, he would not feel anything, just die and find some kind of peace, the light that all the people he thought were crazy had claimed to see when on death’s edge. But there would be no light, he knew that. Not in this America... Lewis laughed. “What are you some kind of government agent or something some shit like that? Well, fuck you!” He held up his hand and pointed at the blemish. “See that? I’ve got it, don’t I? Well, you’ve got it, too, I’ll bet. I don’t care anymore.” (The Body of Martin Aguilera 161-162)

33In fact, Everett uses the concept of rationality, in a way that is reminiscent of Roland Barthes, to show a similarity of consciousness between unlikely subjects. The hero’s avowed desire is to master his past: “I realized that my desire to know more was not driven by a fear of consequences for my having lied to FBI Special Agent Davies, but by a longstanding, unanswered, personal quest to understand my grandfather” Watershed 153). This suggests that the fashioning of an identity requires more from the author than a mere straightforward rendering of what identity is. Hence the intertwining of stories told in parts, suspended, anticipated. Prolepses and flashbacks are artfully combined with a plurality of viewpoints in order to show how complex the fashioning of one’s identity is. From whatever angle one approaches Robert Hawks’s or Lewis Mason’s stories, one can only approach the truth partially.

34As fragments of American Indian policy and the civil rights struggle are unearthed, Everett introduces the notion of the marginal man —strongly evocative of Stonequist’s concept of the stranger— in his representation of people who can be perceived as the unfortunate products of the contact and mergence of one civilization with another. Distance, de-familiarization as well as the emphasis laid on both Robert Hawks’s and Lewis Mason’s disinterested attention to the surrounding world enable Everett not only to represent the reality behind the mask but to highlight the intrinsic qualities of the mask itself —“I didn’t believe in God, I didn’t believe in America. I simply didn’t care, refused to care” (Watershed 173). Rather than viewing such a distance as dysfunctional to the individual, the reader is led to understand that Everett’s heroes approach the world with a specific attitude of objectivity. The aesthetic distance derived from the observer’s point of view provides a means of transcending the tensions. The presence of Robert Hawks’s, the black hydrologist and of Lewis Mason, the black retired professor as observers and reporters is felt from the opening lines. If the author’s voice enters the work indirectly, sometimes as an attribution of motive, sometimes as a statement of the characters’ interior thoughts, the conflicting points of view of the mixed people that are represented in these two novels are the substance of the social reality that is described. Everett’s contrast of perspectives is used mainly to highlight the narrator’s movement towards knowledge while confirming that the right way of approaching the world has emerged from the margins. The disconnection of the conventional reality and the existential is undoubtedly to be understood through Everett’s strategy of distancing the self from its involvement with others.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. 1967. Système de la mode. Paris: Seuil.

Everett, Percival. 1996. Watershed. Saint Paul, MN: Gray wolf Press.

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

Mason, Julian D., ed. 1996. The Poems of Phillis Wheatley. Chicago; IL: University of Chicago Press.

Stonequist, Everett. 1937. The Marginal Man. A Study in Personality and Cultural Conflict. New York: Russell and Russell.


1 The transposition to the American Indian Movement is obvious.


Professor at Université de Rouen. A contributor to American Literary Scholarship (Duke University), she is the author of L’Espoir de vivre, a study of the African American novel from Chester Himes to Hal Bennett, of Jean Toomer, a close study of Cane, of various articles on African American literature, racial Christianity, African American Islam and Affirmative Action. She has edited Black American Stories. She is a co-editor with Claude Julien of Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance and, with Michel Fabre, of a new translation of Himes’s A Case of Rape.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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