Percival L. Everett

The people of the American South are said to love to tell and hear stories. In fact, it can be argued that this strong narrative interest informs most of Southern art, both visual and verbal. Southern painters most often try to freeze a moment in time; Southern writers spin tales with the apparently single purpose of making us want to know what happened next. Percival Everett is no exception to the rule. With some eleven books currently to his credit, Everett is the consummate storyteller.
 

Photo courtesy of Percival Everett.
 

Although he is not quite a South Carolina native, Percival Everett comes close. He was actually born in 1956 at Fort Gordon, a military base just outside of Augusta, Georgia, where his father, Percival Leonard Everett, was, at the time, a sergeant in the United States Army. When Everett was only a few months old, his family moved to Columbia, South Carolina, and it was in that city that he spent his formative years, eventually graduating from A. C. Flora High School. His father, now a dentist, and his mother, Dorothy Stinson Everett, still live in Columbia.

Since his early adulthood, however, Everett has led a rather rambling life, first as a student and then as a teacher. He received a bachelorís degree in philosophy from the University of Miami in 1977, pursued graduate study at the University of Oregon, and earned an A.M. in writing from Brown University in 1982. For the last fifteen years, Everett has held a number of consecutive faculty positions at the Universities of Kentucky, Notre Dame, Wyoming, and as the head of the creative writing program at California-Riverside. He is currently a professor of English at the University of Southern California.

Regardless of where he calls home, however, Percival Everett has practiced the storytelling art, most often focusing on those elements of life which literary critics call "the grotesque." In other words, like other important Southern writers before him, such as William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell and Flannery OíConnor, Everett merges the comic and the tragic. Take, for example, the basic predicament of the protagonist in his first and most celebrated novel SUDER (1983). This African-American third baseman for the Seattle Mariners is in a slump, both professional and personal. Craig Suder finds that he can no longer hit the ball or fulfill his marital duties so he sets off on a double journey, one that is concurrently internal and external. On one level, he re-examines his childhood in North Carolina, through a series of flashbacks that focus on his nagging fear that he may have inherited his motherís apparent insanity. On another level, in the narrative present, he gets caught up in a series of seriocomic adventures involving a host of unusual characters, including a three-hundred-pound Chinese vending machine service man; a sassy, nine-year-old runaway girl; and an abused elephant named Renoir.

Everettís own largely peripatetic life is mirrored in his fiction. His earliest novels have a distinctly westward momentum. From his native North Carolina, for example, the main character of SUDER ends up in the Cascade Mountain Range of Oregon. David Larson, an aimless Vietnam War veteran and the protagonist of Everettís second novel Walk Me to the Distance (1985; subsequently made into an ABC television movie entitled Follow Your Heart) leaves Savannah, Georgia, and serendipitously lands in Slutís Hole, Wyoming.

Since the mid 1980s, however, with the exception of two book-length re-workings of ancient Greek myth, For Her dark Skin (1990) and Frenzy (1997), and a science fiction narrative entitled Zulus (1990), the bulk of Everettís work has been set in the American West. These include most of the pieces in his two short story collections, The Weather and Women Treat Me Fair (1987) and Big Picture (1996); his childrenís book based on a numerical pun, The One That Got Away (1992), and two novels.

The first of his western full-length narratives, God's Country (1994), returns to the formula which made Everettís first novel such a popular and critical success. It is marked by a fast-paced, episodic plot that blends the real and the surreal. Set in 1871, the book recounts the adventures of an improbable two-person posse: a narrow-minded, white rancher named Curt Marder and his hired black scout named Bubba. Peppered with real and imaginary characters, including a cross-dressing George Armstrong Custer, the novel explores our countryís troubled history of gender and race relations.

The same thematic preoccupations, updated to the present, are also explored in Watershed (1996). Everettís latest novel set in the American West focuses on the predicament of an African-American hydrologist, a loner whose life is marked by problematic relationships with other people, especially women. By accident, Robert Hawkes finds himself caught up in an environmental mystery when he becomes the initially reluctant accomplice to a group of Native-American activists who have discovered a government conspiracy to store chemicals on reservation land. He is among the first to realize the serious threat that this development poses to the integrity of the regionís ground water. Through a series of narrative flashbacks highlighting his boyhood relationship to his grandfather, who once risked losing his livelihood in order to prevent an injustice, the reader gains insight into the main characterís belated decision to get involved in other peopleís problems.

Sources:

For a brief biographical and critical overview, one can consult Contemporary Authors, vol. 129, 1990, edited by Susan Trosky; this article was reprinted in Black Writers, vol. 2, 1993, edited by Sharon Malinowski. An assortment of reviews of Everettís first three novels have been printed in Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 57, 1990, edited by Roger Matuz. Essays on Suder and Walk Me to the Distance by S. Thomas Mack in Masterplots II: African American Literature Series, vol. 3, 1994, are the two most comprehensive treatments of Everettís two most notable works to date.  

last updated 7/23/98

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