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17 April 2024

Percival Everett’s American absurd

The author behind American Fiction on rewriting Mark Twain, the evolution of racism, and his addiction to irony.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

On a recent tour of British bookshops, the American author Percival Everett visited Bath. He spent some time signing copies of his most recent book, James, in the independent bookshop Toppings, then went to do the same at another, Mr B’s Emporium, which he learned was founded by a man named Bottomley.

“Immediately the connection for me was: I’m going from Topping to Bottomley,” Everett said with a warm smile, as he sat on a morning train from Manchester to London several days later. A voice through the train’s tannoy advised passengers not to forget their luggage. “Well, that’s good advice,” Everett said, “and I appreciate it, because I’m just the sort of person who would forget his luggage, but I love that someone has remembered to remind me.”

Everett, who is 67 years old, considers himself “pathologically ironic”: he sees irony in everything, everywhere. He loves to use it in his books, of which he has written more than 30. In James, Everett retells the story of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the perspective of Jim, the black man escaping slavery. Hired into a touring minstrel choir, Everett’s Jim must pass as a white man in blackface. So he covers himself in shoe polish – “bootblack” – to fit in with his fellow singers, who of course are themselves white, made up as though they were black. The episode is deeply ironic and typically Everettian.

Everett’s multi-genre novels – which include numerous retellings of Greek mythology, such as Zulus (1990) and Frenzy (1997); the Booker-shortlisted The Trees (2021), a dark comedy about lynchings; and Erasure (2001), which Cord Jefferson recently adapted into the Oscar-winning film American Fiction – are often funny and always playful.

“Play is an entry point,” Everett said. “If someone came in and sat down with their child,” he gestured at the empty seats across the train carriage, “and the child looked over and you smiled at the child and you got into a game back and forth of making faces, that child has decided to trust you. And if the child did not trust you, that game could not happen.” Humour has a similar effect. “Humour is like play: if someone is comfortable enough to laugh, they’re comfortable enough to be open to other things.”

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As world politics has become more absurd, the role of the absurdist artist has grown hazier. Once Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, writers for the American television programme Saturday Night Live stopped producing jokes: they could simply report the news and the audience would laugh. “You know, that’s not enough,” said Everett, who believes in humour as a political tool, though isn’t now sure of the extent of its effect. Has the global shift to the right changed how he writes? “If I’m pragmatic, no, because these [people] are not readers. Would that they were, then our work might mean something in the world, then there might be some level of discourse that would yield something one way or the other.”

Everett was wearing a tweed jacket over a blue chambray shirt, and a cap embroidered with the word “Squibnocket” – the name of a beach in Martha’s Vineyard. He drank black coffee and, when a member of the train’s staff arrived with a list of breakfast options, Everett enquired as to the nature of the “bacon roll” on offer. Disappointed with the response – “It’s bacon in, erm, a bread roll”, the server explained – he declined.

Percival Everett was born in 1956 in Fort Gordon, Georgia, where his father, after whom he was named, was a sergeant in the US army. Later the family moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where Percival the elder worked as a dentist. Everett’s grandfather, whose mother had once been a slave, was a doctor, as were his uncles. “That was normal to us. Everyone I knew as a child was a doctor.” He recalled a time a plumber visited his family home and he assumed the man was a doctor too. 

Everett’s father enjoyed reading, “so the shelves were replete”. As a young teenager, he read books by Hermann Hesse and Kurt Vonnegut, but he didn’t think of becoming a writer himself. “The only thing I was certain of was I didn’t want to be a doctor.” He studied for a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Miami, and is now distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the novelist Danzy Senna, and their two children, aged 13 and 17.

Everett is a prolific writer, and a frequent prize-winner in the US, but his success in the UK has only come recently. Until 2022 he was published by the small independent press Influx, and some of his books have never been published in Britain. After his Booker shortlisting, James was acquired by Macmillan, one of the “big five” publishers, and is being published alongside new editions of six of his previous works as part of the Picador Collection series.

Everett’s work “is an important blueprint for my own writing”, said the British novelist Courttia Newland, whose books include A River Called Time. “As I began to explore varied ways of telling stories about the African diaspora in the UK, particularly men, there he was telling similar stories in the US. He’s bold and visionary, the very idea of risk doesn’t enter his thinking. Every book is different, at the same time uniquely his. He’s been a best-kept secret amongst writers and academics for decades, and is now being recognised as a literary treasure. I don’t think anyone who’s encountered his work disagrees.”

For decades, when browsing for books about black families, Everett only came across stories of either the Antebellum South or impoverished urban living. This, he realised, was seen as the “typical black experience”. But it was not his own: “So I was erased, I was not present.” This is the basis of Erasure, which follows Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a novelist and professor of English literature. Fed up with limited depictions of black American lives, Monk writes a satirical novel parodying the publishing world’s understanding of what a “black novel” is. To Monk’s surprise, his joke novel is sold in a multimillion-dollar deal and becomes a huge success.

Twenty-three years on from the publication of Erasure, the film adaptation, titled American Fiction and starring Jeffrey Wright as Monk, has been widely praised for its satirical treatment of a publishing industry still obsessed with typecasting black lives. It touched a nerve with audiences and critics and was nominated for five Oscars, with its writer and director Cord Jefferson winning the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Is Everett frustrated that the issues he wrote about more than two decades ago are still so relevant?

“Well, a lot has changed and nothing has changed, and that’s the most pernicious part of it. And when real change happens, you don’t notice it. Giraffes didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Look at our necks!’”

Everett does not consider “timeliness” when he is working out what to write next. The idea for James, he has claimed, came to him during a game of tennis. He first read an abridged version of Huckleberry Finn as a child, and then read the full book as a teenager. The novel is considered part of the American literary canon but has been removed from school curriculums after being considered “unteachable” due to its frequent use of racial slurs. The 1884 text has been the subject of a modern culture war. But in giving Jim a voice that was denied to him in Twain’s original text – and in making the enslaved man an intellectual, who writes, reads, and hallucinates conversations with Voltaire and John Locke – Everett makes an urgent political point about the underestimation of black lives.

“The sad part is that I think it would have been just as timely 20 years ago as it is now. Evolution is some really slow shit, that’s what we have to deal with. And it may be that, as a species, homo sapiens practise racism, it’s just racism has a shifting target.”

Everett has never reread any of his books after publication and does not read his reviews. “You can see right away that I have no interest in commercial success!” he said, quite gleefully. Why else would he have written a spy thriller full of mathematical logic (Dr No, his 2022 metaphysical novel featuring a would-be Bond villain)? Other conceits of his are even more absurd: his 1999 book Glyph tells of a baby who chooses not to speak but has an IQ of 500. In Percival Everett by Virgil Russell (2013), a man visits his father in a nursing home. It’s unclear whether the following story is told by the man or his father – or, somehow, both of them – but what results is an evocative enquiry into ageing.

“Again, it’s the irony of everything,” Everett said, by way of explanation. “I don’t think about genre. I think about people’s expectations about stories, and if I can subvert those expectations, then I can create absurdities and I can give either a heightened satisfaction or dissatisfaction that will allow me to do something different. I have no interest in satisfying the moves of a police procedural: nothing could be more boring to me than that. But the fact that we all know the moves of a police procedural fascinates me. I don’t watch them, I don’t read them, yet I know them.”

The many characters in his work who may or may not be fictionalised versions of Everett – novelists, literature professors, avid fly-fishers, woodworkers – or Everetts of times past, who are horse and mule trainers, who get up early to enjoy the morning Idaho sun – are further products of the author’s characteristic playfulness. “I think all the characters are trying to figure out who the hell I am: ‘Who’s this guy who’s made the rules? And where does he think he sits in this world?’” Percival Everett is still working that out himself.

[See also: Wolfgang Tillmans: “Art doesn’t have a purpose”]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran