Come, step into the world of Percival Everett, you won’t want to leave in a hurry I assure you..
Over the years, publishers have done a great job of salvaging author voices from the wreckage of history; Lucia Berlin, William Melvin Kelley, John Williams, and John Kennedy Toole, to name a few. Writers whose novels have a time-piercing effect, collapsing time, and finding us right where we are, wrapped in a shiny new Picador, Riverrun, or Vintage cover. Often these novelists are no longer around to witness the explosion in popularity of their work, their sudden cultural relevance, their own little renaissance. Some of these authors, I am sure, would have liked very much to have been around for this – after all it was the lack of recognition which tortured poor Toole.
Percival Everett (b.1956), is still very much alive and writing. His catalogue stretches back to 1983, and comprises more than 30 published works spanning: fiction, poetry, and children’s fiction. He is the recipient of multiple literary awards including, PEN Prizes, Pushcart Awards and Guggenheim Fellowships. He truly is one of those ‘your author’s favourite author’, and I get the sense that maybe he would rather keep it that way.. If that’s the case, then unfortunately for Percival and fortunately for us, his work is now receiving the attention it so obviously deserves.
To date, Influx Press have published two of Everett’s novels for a UK readership; ‘My Name is Not Sidney Poitier’ and ‘Damned If I Do’ (short stories), with a third, ‘Percival Everett by Virgil Russell’ scheduled for the 5th October. Faber, contributed to Everett’s UK renaissance this August with the publication of ‘Erasure’, Everette’s most “popular” novel. All of which glimmer with his stinging wit, wicked humour, and prolific imagination.
You could start with any of these books, but I would suggest that you begin with ‘Erasure’, as a way to get to know the author. Self referential, always, Everett often makes allusions to his other books, giving you a keen sense of the mind at work. ‘Erasure’ is a pacy cerebral page turner which follows Thelonius ‘Monk’ Ellison, a smooth talking, sharp-witted, overqualified, black author. A black author, whose books he is told by his agent are “too white”.
A consistent theme across Everette’s work is his bashing of a culture industry which decides who can write what. Everette’s characters are constantly being pigeonholed into narrow expectations toward the pursuit of culturally palatable, commercially successful work – that is, what a white audience expects. These bashings are often humorous and always innovative, and so it never feels tedious. As such the middle of ‘Erasure’ opens up into a novella called ‘My Pafology’, a novella mimicking the best selling ‘We’s Lives in Da Ghetto’ a novel told in “street” dialect, the movie rights for which have sold for $3 Million. As Thelonious attempts to situate himself in this literary landscape – which is dangerously close to consuming him, inducing a kind of apathy – his sister, a doctor running her own abortion clinic, is shot dead by a pro-life terrorist. Thelonius is brought back to his Mother’s house, as the responsibilities of care and death admin ground him more thoroughly.
Although ‘Erasure’ is suffused with satire and sardonic jibes, ‘My Name is Not Sidney Poitier’ and ‘Damned If I Do’ are more traditionally comic, complete with comic duos, absurdism, and quirky characters. ‘My Name is Not Sidney Poitier’ is a novel made up of parodies which viewers of the real Sidney Poitier’s movies may pick up on – although this is not integral to understanding and enjoying the novel. The novel is a scathing piece of satire which is highly critical of culture and its influence on class and race. As ever the book is furnished with Everett’s ability to balance his irreverent humour with the myriad everyday dramas in which every small-big life is forged.
Hitherto, Percival Everett has been a swaggering, invisible, giant of American words, and now more than ever, he should be read by everyone.
To purchase any (or all) of the books listed in this article, head over to the Percival Everett book list.