Discovering Percival Everett

It is always good to discover a writer that you haven’t come across before. The winners of the Windham-Campbell Prizes have been announced, with a range covering plays, fiction, non-fiction and Inuit poetry – quite a range! Amongst those prizes is one for Percival Everett, an American writer whose novel The Trees was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year.

Donald Windham, a writer of short stories, novels and memoirs, established the Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes at Yale University in 2013, with the mission of calling attention to literary achievement and provide the chosen writers with the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns – the kind of independence that $175,000 provides.

The Windham Campbell website praises Everett’s work like this:

In its mordant humor and philosophical skepticism, Percival Everett’s virtuosic body of work exemplifies fiction’s capacity for play, vigilance, and compassion for life’s precarity in an uncertain world.

A Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California, Everett has written numerous novels and short stories, displaying a range of modes and styles, with some post-modern experiments thrown in. The shifting nature of his writing led to this comment:

I’ve been called a Southern writer, a Western writer, an experimental writer, a mystery writer, and I find it all kind of silly. I write fiction.

That suggests a refusal to be pigeon-holed, to be classified and constrained. While the concerns of America’s racial history run through his work, he is careful to avoid the stereotyped ‘requirements’ of Black fiction, which he satirises in his novel Erasure. Within the novel is a parody called My Pafology, which becomes a best-seller within the plot.

Death, torture, crime, pollution, corpses and lynching are frequent references, but what marks out Everett’s work is its humour. The humour is sometimes uncomfortable, creating awkward recognition rather than outright laughter. His fiction matches American history with contemporary events and politics. Everett’s satire homes in on America’s difficulty in fully recognising its own history and atoning for atrocities that it finds difficult to acknowledge.

Percival Everett’s latest book is Dr No, the title and plot being a clear reference to James Bond. It is reviews here in The Guardian and here in The LA Times. Here is an excellent article in the New Yorker about Everett’s fiction, with particular focus on The Trees.