Fiction - Dead man walking

American Desert

Percival Everett <em>Faber & Faber, 291pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 0571226612

In Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, young Jim Dixon, forced to produce a paper, finds himself exasperated at "the niggling mindlessness" of academia - its endless compulsion to cast "pseudo light on non-problems". Dixon clearly isn't cut out for life as a scholar, but even the most devoted lecturer today will identify with his problem: since the 1950s, when Lucky Jim was published, the pressure on academics to churn out new (or recycled) books has increased exponentially.

Ted Street, the hero of Percival Everett's new novel, is a professor of Old English at the University of Southern California whose book has repeatedly been rejected on the grounds that "it is too much like books we published last year". He is up against a dynamic young female professor who has already published on Beowulf, and his cantankerous head of department, "a Joyce scholar who despised Joyce with a passion". Ted's marriage is a disappointment, his kids are mistakes, and suicide seems more appealing than perseverance. It is with this in mind that he drives determinedly towards the ocean. Before he gets there, however, he is involved in a car crash that severs his head from his body.

This mishap proves to be Ted's salvation. Three days later, at his funeral, his head crudely sewn on, he sits up in his coffin and resumes his life a more mature person. Invigorated by death, he returns to his family, baffled that he no longer needs to breathe and grateful that he can still perform in bed. While his wife, Gloria, comforts him, the world reacts hysterically. What follows is both a lampoon of contemporary America and something closer to a Bildungsroman.

Pre-dead Ted, we learn, was a shocking egotist and a lily-livered wretch. He committed infidelities without a thought for others; though infinitely introspective, he lacked the moral fibre to change. When Gloria miscarried, he failed to hide his delight, and was "unable to say anything, comforting, informative or otherwise" when his terrified young daughter Emily started to menstruate.

Now that Ted has discovered "prudence and circumspection", however, the rest of the world behaves with anything but. The church where he comes to life erupts in a horrified riot. "Anyone, save a religious nut anticipating the rise of the Messiah, would have been terrified," Ted concedes. A cult that believes him to be the Messiah reacts by committing mass suicide; another, sure that he is the devil, abducts him to the desert. He soon lands up at a sinister government compound where doctors perform unspeakable medical experiments on him.

Everett's humour and creativity are seemingly limitless. Erasure (2001) was a stinging send-up of the publishing industry; Glyph (1999) poked fun at religion and academia in equal measure. In American Desert, we meet pompous preachers and bonkers cultists, noirish insurance agents and officials both men-acing and ludicrous. At the government compound, doctors have isolated the DNA of Christ from the blade of a Roman spear. The cloning process is well under way, though it has yet to be perfected; idiot savants and plain idiotic Jesuses roam about peacefully.

But Everett reserves his most acerbic satire for the media. He bitterly depicts a public with "nothing but compartment after compartment for the storing of useless images and pointless, meaningless synaptic events". He offers a stinging portrayal of the news anchorwoman Barbie Becker - all facial powder and naked ambition. Barbie kidnaps Ted's daughter to provoke him into giving an interview, but he refuses to co-operate. "If you're threatening me then you're threatening the entire news media and therefore the very fabric of society," she screams, uselessly.

In the midst of all this, Ted just yearns for peace: "I wish that I had no mouth . . . I wish that my words had no meaning." Everett's words are crammed with meaning; we should be grateful that Ted's desire for silence is not shared by his author.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Faith invaders