The settings of Percival Everett’s highly anticipated novel So Much Blue (Graywolf, June) include North America, Central America, and Europe in three different time periods. His wide range of interests is characteristic of the intellectually stimulating literature he’s produced over three decades. Everett has published 30 books, mostly novels, that satirize and outright mock such subjects as the nature of intelligence (Glyph), the American West (Half an Inch of Water), and identity and race (Erasure) with a biting and incisive wit that will make readers laugh just to keep from crying.
Though Everett’s work has been celebrated by literary critics and has won such awards as the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the author stays out of the spotlight, generally does not like to give interviews, and leaves the promotion of his books to others. “I have no interest at all in business, or marketing,” he says during a phone interview from the South Pasadena, Calif., home he shares with his wife, writer Danzy Senna, and their two children. “I just want to write the next book.”
A similar tendency manifests in Kevin Pace, the protagonist of So Much Blue. He’s a recovering alcoholic and abstract painter who won’t allow anyone to see his sprawling 12-by-21-foot canvas painted in various shades of blue. “My canvas, my private painting, has a title, a name,” Pace says. “It has never been spoken aloud to anyone. I have only said it once, under my breath while I was alone in my studio. It was a bit like my email password, except that it cannot be retrieved if I forget it. I have not written it down.”
In that way, Pace is like the novel’s author. “I don’t share my work with anyone, except my agent,” Everett says. “I have works that are not meant for consumption, that are solely for me. They aren’t for anyone else to see.”
Pace’s unseen masterpiece functions as a tableau for his secrets. “The quote in the beginning of the novel by Diane Arbus, ‘A picture is a secret about a secret,’ is really interesting to me,” Everett says. “I’m interested in secrets: how important they are, and how much secrets contribute to the truth of something.”
A secret Pace has kept from his wife is the affair he had 10 years before with Victoire, a 20-something Parisian watercolorist. An incident from the more distant past that haunts him is the dangerous, covert trip he and his best friend Richard took to El Salvador on the brink of its bloody civil war in 1979. Aided by a racist Vietnam veteran code-named Bummer, the two were there to find Richard’s brother Tad, who they thought might be a drug dealer and/or user. In this Apocalypse Now–like setting, driving through the Salvadoran jungle in a 1963 Cadillac and dodging bullets, Pace, Richard, and Bummer faced a tragedy that Pace has relived for decades.
The obvious question to ask Everett is, what inspired such a confounding work? “I suffer from what I call work amnesia,” he says. “Who knows where art comes from? I internalize so much of the research, it’s hard to say. My travels have helped me write about different places. I visited El Salvador. I would not suggest that I know the place, but there is a familiarity. And I read a bit about the civil war. And of course, I lived during the Iran-Contra stuff with Oliver North and that whole scandal. All this contributed to my understanding of Central America.”
So Much Blue is made up of the same kind of literary ingredients found in Everett’s previous satirical works. “I’m always addressing a philosophical issue important to me, not necessarily important to the reader,” he says. “And it usually takes me a couple of books to work through an idea. ”
His novel Glyph (1999) lampoons semiotics and poststructuralism, and features Baby Ralph: a mute infant with an IQ of 475, who likes Wittgenstein and devours books on science, philosophy, and mathematics. A victim of his gifts, Baby Ralph is kidnapped by a succession of psychiatrists and shadowy government figures.
In contrast, Erasure, published in 2001, is a no-holds-barred indictment of racism in the publishing industry. The novel centers on Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a black writer and college professor who is told by his white agent to “forget about writing retellings of Euripides and parodies of French poststructuralists and settle down and write true, gritty stories of black life.” Ellison does so with a blistering book initially entitled My Pafology, retitled Fuck, that riffs on Richard Wright’s Native Son and on Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push.
The subject of Erasure—the marginalization of black writers—is a subject Everett knows all too well. “Somebody’s going to categorize you,” he laments. “And I have been categorized in different ways and in different groups. Art is art! I won’t let anyone tell me where I can or cannot live. And I won’t let anyone tell me what I can or cannot write.”
Many of Everett’s stories occur in the American West, where he’s lived since his early 20s. “I’m in love with the landscape,” he says. “It’s where I live. It’s what I know.” His 2015 short story collection, Half an Inch of Water, exhibits his take on the region and includes the story “Little Faith,” about a deaf Native American girl who gets lost in the desert and is discovered unharmed, surrounded by rattlesnakes, and “Graham Greene,” a tale named not after the British spy writer but for the Native American actor who appeared in the film Dances with Wolves.
Though he’s long been associated with the West, Everett’s roots are in the Deep South. He was born on Dec. 22, 1956, in Fort Gordon, Ga., to Percival L. Gordon, a dentist, and his wife Dorothy, and the family moved to Columbia, S.C., the next year. A voracious reader as a child, Everett spent long hours reading in the stacks of the University of South Carolina’s library while still in high school. “For some reason, the person at the front desk allowed me to [read in] the stack—mostly philosophy and social history,” Everett recalls.
He graduated from University of Miami in 1977 with a major in philosophy and a minor in biochemistry. He studied the philosophy of language in graduate school at the University of Oregon, then earned an M.A. in fiction writing at Brown University in 1982. His first novel, 1983’s Suder, was based on his master’s thesis.
As for his literary heroes, Everett says: “In terms of fiction, I was one of a multitude of readers of Kurt Vonnegut. I loved Chester Himes. I loved Mark Twain’s humor, his freedom of expression, individual thinking, and not being afraid to make fun of something. If you can get someone relaxed and laughing, then you can do what you want. And I wouldn’t be a writer if I hadn’t heard John Coltrane play ‘My Favorite Things,’ [a song] so ironically removed from the experience of African-American life, and make it his own.” Indeed, the title So Much Blue, Everett says, is inspired by Miles Davis’s classic album Kind of Blue.
In his own way, Everett has succeeded in creating a jazzlike fiction that is sui generis. He tries to impart this spirit to his students at the University of Southern California, where he has taught since 1998. “I teach in a Ph.D. program for fiction writers and poets,” he says. “I teach my students freedom, and I disabuse them of the idea that there are rules to fiction. [I teach them] that they can be free, the way children are free when they play. That’s what I aspire to: I want to be four years old again! That’s genius. And if I can get close to that, then I’m doing my job.”
Eugene Holley Jr. is a freelance writer who frequently contributes to Publishers Weekly.