Digital painting of the columnist by Jennifer Herrold.
The Wide World of Southern Literature
Assumption by Percival Everett
(Graywolf Press, 2011)
When I imagine Percival Everett, I imagine a man who likes people only specifically, if at all, and never in groups. I may be wrong, but he made a pretty good case for this himself. “I like my life and I think I like it because I don’t like so much about the world,” he said in a 2003 interview.
Everett added that he didn’t carry with him the anger he once had. “Now I am kind of sad,” he admitted. “It’s all predictable and maybe I sound cynical saying this, but the outrage gives way to a sort of amused concern. And it’s shocking and I am curious and interested in the fact that it’s not shocking—what’s shocking is that it is not shocking. And what does it mean about people that they have always behaved in a way that doesn’t let their behavior surprise us.”
This is where Assumption comes in. It is full of surprises. Everett, a Georgia-born, South Carolina-raised, California-based writer and professor known for his bedeviling literary intellectualism, has published more than twenty books since his first. They may appear to be about something specific or direct, but are nuanced and curious in ways that can’t be summed up in a dust-jacket blurb. That is to say, they aren’t just about something; they are about everything.
This is the case with Assumption. On the surface, Assumption seems to be a mystery novel revolving around a series of murders that may be related to a New Mexico- and Texas-based group of white supremacists. Upon closer inspection, the novel contains three stories, and the mystery that connects them is postmodern, literary, and cerebral—and only superficially connected to the killings. The vibe is quick, with the pacing of a gumshoe serial, and the novella-length stories (“A Difficult Likeness,” “My American Cousin,” and “The Shift”) seem to be forming a standard novel—until the third. That is, until “The Shift.”
The novellas are linked by character, subject, voice, and the ever-watching nonparticipant that guides the book through seemingly objective narration. Not only objective, but, it would seem in the first two stories, omniscient—following deputy sheriff Ogden Walker’s emotional and physical states, his weariness, his pain, his discomfort and pride in the rural Western town where he grew up.
The first murder occurs shortly after Ogden responds to a call about an elderly white lady, Mrs. Bickers, who discharged an un-registered gun during the middle of the night at a “prowler” she didn’t actually see. Before taking her gun, Ogden gently questions her.
“Are you sure you’re all right, Mrs. Bickers?” He suddenly felt uneasy. He wondered about the way she was looking away from him.
“I’m fine.” She looked him in the eye. “I had a prowler last night and I shot at him and scared the hell out of him and now you’re taking my protection away.”
“Look at it this way. What if it had been me at the door?”
“What if it had been you?”
She is eerily cold to the deputy, and although he tries to overlook her behavior, he senses a deep, race-based prejudice. The town is mostly white, drawing its little diversity from passers-through, some families of Mexican- and Native-American descent, and Ogden. He is biracial, the product of a marriage between a black man and a white woman. He is a native of the small New Mexico town where he works, and his mother still lives in the house where she raised him. Ogden offers to bring more firewood inside for Mrs. Bickers, to open up doors in the house so the heat of the fire could get to the bedroom, and to hunt for Mrs. Bicker’s missing cat, but she declines his help.
Ogden leaves to interview the neighbors, but returns shortly afterward, carrying firewood. He remembers that he left the door unlocked when he stepped out, and he opens it without knocking.
He doesn’t see Mrs. Bickers immediately, but when he drops down to look under the bed, there is the cat, eyes bulging, neck twisted, “squeezed to death.” As it turns out, so is the old woman. Ogden calls in the sheriff’s department, but something is wrong. There are too many fingerprints in the cellar where she’s discovered to be of any use to investigators, and there aren’t enough footprints surrounding the house. Until investigators arrived, only the deputy sheriff’s boot prints marred the snow.
Before long, Mrs. Bickers daughter is asking about her. They weren’t close, she says, but she wanted to know her mother better and had come to town to do that after years of estrangement. She knows nothing about the murder; nothing about her mother’s associates. She stays at Ogden’s mother’s house. Before long, Miss Jenny Bickers is dead, too.
Ogden’s world oscillates between idyllic fly-fishing dreams and excursions and the constant discoveries of gruesome crime scenes (Jenny Bickers; a small party of dead men; bodies in trunks; the stolen corpse of a teenage boy). He travels to whore houses and unfriendly areas in the wrong parts of town. Nothing adds up satisfactorily, though it always seems about to. Everyone seems to be masquerading as someone they are not.
The book is wonderful because it is unsettled and unsettling, laced with the dark humor for which Everett is known. The conclusion is unexpected, and begs more questions than it answers. But this is one of the joys of reading Percival Everett’s work—you start out with a mystery, and through a little postmodern alchemy, you end up with an existential exploration of truth, and I’d wager that the main answer Everett grants will not be to any of the questions his readers were asking.
Percival Everett reviews Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin in the New South Journalism issue, available now.