American Desert

American Desert

3.0 3
by Percival Everett

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Part parable, part fantasy novel, part laugh-out-loud satire, American Desert is the story of Theodore Street, a college professor on the brink of committing suicide. When the decision is taken out of his hands—he's hit by a car and his head is severed from his body—he must come to terms with himself.

At his funeral, he sits up in his own coffin

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Part parable, part fantasy novel, part laugh-out-loud satire, American Desert is the story of Theodore Street, a college professor on the brink of committing suicide. When the decision is taken out of his hands—he's hit by a car and his head is severed from his body—he must come to terms with himself.

At his funeral, he sits up in his own coffin with the stitches that bind his head to his body clearly visible. Everyone is horrified by this resurrection. He becomes a source of fear and embarrassment to his daughter, and an object of derision and morbid curiosity to the press and the scientific communities, and is anointed as a sort of devil by an obscure religious cult. In the process, Theodore manages to reestablish his relationship with his estranged wife and family and to rediscover the value of his life.

In this experimental, satirical, and bizarre novel, critically acclaimed author Percival Everett once again takes on the assumptions of a culture whose priorities have gone out of whack. He lampoons the press, religion, and academia while offering, ultimately, an existential meditation of what constitutes being alive.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
While on his way to commit suicide, Ted Street, an untenured English professor and philandering husband, is beheaded in a car accident. Worse, he wakes up at his own funeral, his head clumsily stitched on his neck and his mouth sewn closed. From there, Ted embarks on a wide-ranging cruise through the American landscape, as he is kidnapped by a cult convinced that he is a devil; picked up by the military to be experimented on as a prototype of the perfect soldier; and sheltered by another cult, which worships him as a messiah. While the outlandish premise imparts a good deal of comic energy, Everett’s customary sarcastic and intelligent wit is oddly lacking. Much of his satire of fanaticism—the charismatic cult leader with a stockpile of weapons, secret government plots—feels worn, and, despite all the talk of resurrection, the stiff prose never perks up.
Publishers Weekly
When UCLA professor Ted Street sits up in his coffin at his own funeral, mayhem ensues in this smart, satirical and engrossing novel by prolific Everett (Glyph; Erasure; etc.). Ted had been planning suicide, but a car accident conveniently sliced off his head. With reattached noggin, no pulse and a few strangely sharpened senses, Ted rejoins his stunned family, feeling "like a monster, a re-animated ghoul." But his wife, Gloria, takes him to bed for newly gratifying sex, and he has other heightened powers-of understanding and even telepathy. TV vans besiege their house, and preteen daughter Emily is briefly taken by Protective Services. Venturing out for groceries with his family, Ted is kidnapped by a religious cult led by menacing Big Daddy, who's convinced Ted's the anti-Christ. After being shot numerous times, Ted escapes into the desert, only to be caught by the Feds, who whisk him away to a reanimation laboratory outside Roswell, N.Mex., to study him (they remove his organs while he's awake and put them back "much as one might stuff a turkey"). These varied confinements give Ted time to reflect on his frustrating, untenured status at the university, the birth of his beloved children, his philandering ways and his troubled marriage. Escaping yet again, this time with help from a man who makes Jesus clones, Ted rescues a group of children held hostage by Big Daddy before returning home to a family that has been forever changed. Thoughtful, darkly comic and full of heart, the novel offers a wonderfully unusual story about retrospection and forgiveness. Agent, Melanie Jackson. (May) Forecast: This is fun, imaginative, page-turning fiction. Booksellers can confidently recommend it to readers looking for an outlandish tale full of earthy, believable emotional resonance. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Theodore (Ted) Street is on his way to commit suicide when his car is hit by a UPS truck, which results in his head being severed from his body. Three days later at his funeral, Ted sits up in his coffin and walks out of the proceedings, leaving his confused family in his wake; a street riot and a media frenzy ensue. Later, in the supermarket, Ted is kidnapped by a group of religious zealots who try and fail to kill him. Leaving their compound, he is picked up by a government agent (complete with black helicopter) and taken to a secret research laboratory that specializes in reanimation. There, Ted is subjected to surgical scrutiny: all of his internal organs are removed, with no discernible change in his condition. When he escapes, he considers for what purpose he is still walking around. His discovery of that purpose and completion of his "mission" free him to see his family again and then complete the dying process. In his 15th novel, award-winner Everett (Erasure; Glyph) has created a story of love, despair, resurrection, purpose, and the comedy of human existence. Fans of his earlier work will be drawn to the sympathetic characters and the black humor (mixed with cold, hard truth) that permeates every scene. Recommended for most collections. Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Ashaway Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
High-gloss satire and fast-paced adventure, as a guy sits up in his coffin and becomes by turns a media sensation, a devil, and a guinea pig for the military. With his chances of tenure virtually nil and his affairs threatening his marriage, bored and self-pitying UCLA English professor Ted Street is driving to the ocean to drown himself when a traffic accident takes over, severing his head. The undertakers stitch him back together, and Ted revives at his funeral. His resurrection is a shock for everybody, but long-suffering wife Gloria handles it well, comforting their two kids and even making love to Ted, who has never felt more alive, even though he has no pulse. The no-nonsense atheist has no memories of an afterlife either, but is astute enough to realize he may have an opportunity to clean up his act and behave better to Gloria. Meanwhile, the media have besieged his house. Ted uses his newfound gift of telepathy to devastate a manipulative interviewer on camera, but he's less fortunate at the supermarket, where he's abducted by members of a doomsday cult. They take this "devil" straight to their leader, Big Daddy, but their cannonballs bounce right off, and Ted escapes their desert compound. Then it's the feds' turn to abduct poor Ted and take him to an underground reanimation lab. Excitement aside, this might have been just a series of glib assaults on a gallery of familiar all-American freaks and phonies, but veteran novelist Everett (Erasure, 2001, etc.) tempers his portraits with a compassion that also embraces Ted's family, torn between love and revulsion. Endearingly, Ted tries to make restitution and repair his "weak moral fiber." He selflessly rescues some kids Big Daddyhas been holding hostage and then gracefully surrenders all his claims on Gloria. The ending is perfect: surprising yet inevitable. Vital signs for this page-turner are all just fine. Especially the heart.

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Product Details

Hachette Book Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.81(d)
Age Range:
18 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt


A Novel
By Percival Everett


Copyright © 2004 Percival Everett
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7868-6917-8

Chapter One

THAT THEODORE STREET WAS dead was not a matter open to debate. The irony of his accidental death went unobserved as no one knew that Theodore was on his way to commit suicide when he was, shall we say, interrupted. Now the irony is lost amid the confusion created by Ted's death, departure, demise, dissolution and further by the fact that Ted chooses to relate his own story in third person, an unusual (the occasional politician and athlete aside), but acceptable device, given that, in a most profound way, he stood-or stands even-outside himself, not so much on the parapet of consciousness but of life itself, it being perhaps the case that neither entails, necessarily, the other. But regardless of where Ted stood, or stands, he was on his way to the beach where he had every intention of marching into the ocean until it was over his head and taking a deep, lung-filling breath of water which, according to his limited knowledge of human physiology, would result in a termination of his life, barring the interference of some lifeguard or Boy Scout or Girl Scout, though he had never found Girl Scouts to be terribly overzealous or meddlesome. He was driving at a respectable clip along Ocean Boulevard when a fat man chased his nails-painted poodle out into thestreet before a UPS truck, causing the driver of the huge, brown block to swerve and slide into a lane of oncoming traffic, the oncoming traffic in this case being Ted Street in his 1978 Lancia coupe. The truck and the Lancia met violently and whereas his vehicle halted quite abruptly, Ted did not, but continued in the same direction he had been traveling through the already cracked windscreen. Remarkably, Ted's face suffered not a single scratch and neither did his body break about the ribs, clavicles, arms or legs, but his head did become rather cleanly detached from the rest of him. It was a jagged but complete wound around his neck that left one seasoned police officer vomiting by the accordioned front fender of the Lancia while the young rookie on patrol with him stood, mouth agape, staring at the head lying on the asphalt. Unlike the stories of beheaded Frenchmen stealing one last, pitiful look at their cast-off bodies, Ted had no such perception. He died instantly and, in a manner of speaking, completely. The UPS man was beside himself, so much so that he would later attend Ted Street's funeral and subsequently take a civil service examination in order to change his profession. The coroner's wagon came with a representative of the coroner, not the coroner himself, and the young man observed Ted's head from his wagon door and was satisfied that he was dead, making the requisite marks on his clipboard, but having to call his office to ask whether head and body should be placed in the same or separate bags. Ted's head was placed under his left arm, the fingers of his hand falling over his mouth which was frozen partly open, and the cool vinyl bag was zipped from bottom to top. The ride in the coroner's wagon to the morgue was protracted, the medical examiner's assistant stopping at a fast-food restaurant, his mother's house, a comic-book store and a remote parking lot where he charged gang thugs a dollar each to "see the stiff."

* * *

At the morgue, which turned out not to be deep in the bowels of some hospital but on a second floor of the sixties-vintage medical examiner's offices with lots of windows that didn't open and a unisex restroom, Ted's wife, Gloria, viewed his head on a video monitor as it sat in a metal bowl. She let out a short but reasonably justified scream. She then fell into the arms of her sister, Hannah, who "had never liked Ted anyway," and wept convincingly and no doubt sincerely, the image of the head on the screen etching itself into her forever-memory. The image blurred just a bit, there on the screen, but finally looked exactly like the head she had slept with for so many years. The matter, however, rang with an air of incompleteness, as it was the case that the body was never identified, only the head and isn't that what is always required? That the body be identified? "We want you to come down and identify the body," the cop always says. Never, "Is that his head?" So, Gloria signed papers and said that Ted had never mentioned that he wanted his organs donated to medicine, science, or the needy and that such a decision should have been his and that he, all of him, should be sent to the Iverson, Ash, Graves and Shroud Mortuary over in Garden Grove and so he was. Sent over there.

In the embalming room, Ash and Graves agreed that Ted had lost enough blood that there would be poor draw on the fluid and that no one would notice the difference anyway if they didn't fill him with formaldehyde and methyl alcohol and certainly they were not going to waste humectants and anticoagulants on him. Besides, as Ash pointed out to Graves, poor draw could create embarrassing results, as when Pope John Paul I began to swell up and make sounds during the live broadcast of his funeral ceremony. "Don't you remember how that poor altar boy had to keep wiping the purge away from the pontiff's mouth?" Ash said. Ash sewed Ted's head back onto his body, his stitches sloppy but tight, using blue thirty-weight fishing line, and instead of sewing the mouth shut by passing the thread through the nose, Ash simply put eight stitches between the lips.

Iverson and Shroud were trying to talk Gloria into buying a gaudy bronze coffin with eagle- or some other bird-of-prey-sculpted handles, her sister balking the while, the children, Emily and Perry, twelve and seven, sitting some feet away, their little faces blank with confusion, but knowing enough to be terrified of the place-the drapes, the maroon flock and foil wallpaper, the dark corridors, the ashen-faced men smiling those ashen smiles which were not quite smiles.

"Mommy," Perry said, "I want to go home."

"As soon as we find Daddy a nice casket, dear," Gloria said. "Come over here and look at the book with Mommy."

Perry and Emily walked from the floral print sofa-irises-across the dark carpet to the desk, where they stood on either side of their mother and looked at the catalogue of final resting containers.

"He won't be able to turn over in there," Perry said.

"Daddy's dead, stupid," Emily said. "He won't be turning over." Then, having said it, the girl understood and began to feel her grief, a contagious condition that reduced both children to tears.

This left Gloria at the mercy of the tall, chilly-handed morticians and she ended up buying the most expensive box, the lining of which even she at the time recognized as something appropriate for a brothel, however "cloudlike." "Come along, children," she said and they escaped, went to a fun place to eat.

* * *

The funeral was held three days after Ted's decapitation, at a church that Ted never attended when alive. In fact, Ted had never attended any church, but where else does one hold a funeral service; this was what Gloria thought and so with her sister's help, Hannah no doubt thinking it a fitting final insult to Ted to have his last earthly function held within the walls of a place he would never have entered alive, she found the Sacred Blood First Christ Church of the Everlasting Spirit over in Long Beach.

* * *

During his life, Ted had been a college professor, teaching Old English and various survey courses at the University of Southern California. He had taken ten years to obtain his doctorate and had put off his tenure review by taking leaves of absence, but the time had come to be considered for tenure and the pressure was on. His book had not been accepted by any publisher, though Cornell University Press had kept it for a long time, finally rejecting it, writing "It is too much like books we published last year." He had for the past two semesters felt as if his colleagues were staring at him, avoiding him, treating him like some terminally ill patient. "Good teaching evaluations just aren't enough," said Horace Shiply, an Early Americanist with a Melville beard and a mole that stuck out of it. When his department hired a new person in his field, a young woman who had not only already published a book on Beowulf, but was on the cutting edge of digital imaging of manuscripts, Ted saw the writing on the wall.

* * *

Now, the cast were all crammed into the roasting-hothouse of God, the department chair, the insufferably pompous dean of the college, and the Beowulf woman included, to watch Ted being sent off to wherever, stretched out in his expensive box with a bit of the blue fishing line showing just over his starched white collar. He was casketed in the standard position, his right shoulder slightly lower than his left, so as not to have him appear as what he was, a dead body flat on its back. As well, he was slightly elevated in order to diminish the prominence of the coffin. Gloria and the children were in the front row, just feet away from the casket, their backs straight against the tired wood of the pew. So was Gloria's sister, wearing a khaki dress and white sandals. There was a choir dressed in powder blue robes singing some songs that Ted would never have recognized about their God coming back to earth and pastures and sheep and they swayed the while. A maroon-robed minister, a big man named Larville Staige, stood and cleared his throat, made a brief comment about the heat, fanned himself using a fan bearing the image of Martin Luther King, Jr., on one side and advertising a funeral home on the other, and said that he didn't want to keep everyone too long,

"But we must send our brother off to his final resting place with the proper blessing and the love of Christ, our Lord. Poor, poor Theodore Street met a violent and senseless death on the streets of our sin-ridden city. His blood spilled into the same gutters that carry away our daily filth and urine. Yes! Brothers and Sisters, Theodore Street is nothing less than a neon marker in the road of life, having looked both ways before crossing perhaps, but like so many of us, having failed to look up. He is a marker telling us that at any second-any second!-everything earthly can end. One minute, you're driving along and the next, your head is over there and your body is over there!" A yelp escaped one of Ted's children and then both buried their faces in their mother's sides. Staige spread his sausage fingers wide and wrapped them over the edge of the lectern in front of him. "Theodore Street was a teacher and he is teaching us even now. He is teaching us that life is temporary and that we had better have our affairs straight. The Book of Isaiah, chapter thirty-eight, verse one, says, 'Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.' Never were truer words spoke. Just ask Theodore Street. But finally, I must admit that I did not know Mr. Street. But Jesus knew him!"

An "amen" shot out from the choir.

"Thank you, Sister! Yes, Our Lord knew Mr. Street and He knows him even better now, though we have no idea if he got to the house of God in one piece. Maybe his head got there first and had to wait for the rest of him, but it is no matter, because both parts have moved on. But to speak about the living Theodore Street, let me introduce the head-pardon me, the chairman of the department in which the deceased taught, Professor Orville Orson."

Orville Orson was a fat pig of a man, a Joyce scholar who despised Joyce with a passion and had devoted his career to exposing the great author as a mediocre writer who happened to be very, very smart. Orson wore suspenders, which he called "braces," and seersucker suits no matter how cool the weather turned. He was wearing a heat-crumpled seersucker when he rose and walked from the third row to the altar. His sweaty, meaty palm pressed into Staige's sweaty, meaty palm and the lectern was turned over. Orson was perspiring about the neck and forehead, but he was used to that and so his constant wiping with his handkerchief did not make him appear nervous or uncomfortable. "I first met Ted nine years ago," he said, the point of it significant to everyone save Larville Staige and the members of the Sacred Blood First Christ Church of the Everlasting Spirit. "He came into my office, having just finished his degree at Duke, with bright eyes and enormous energy. He immediately became a cherished colleague to all of us in the department and the college as well. Though he never published anything or, to my knowledge, wrote anything, he was a dedicated teacher." Then in his usual, forgetful manner, he paused, then said, "I'm sorry, Ted did write something. He wrote a book, though I have no idea what it could have been about. I know only that no one wanted to publish it. Anyway, Ted's students admired him greatly. He was, in fact, twice voted by the students as Outstanding Teacher of the Year. His classes were for years oversubscribed." He paused again, then, as if thinking while talking, he said, "Until his tenure review loomed rather largely on his horizon and his attention span apparently dwindled to a few seconds and he stopped preparing his lectures. But you know how that goes. The important thing to remember today is that Ted Street was a good man, a devoted husband and a loving father. One doesn't have to be a good scholar to be those things and what's more important? Ted was what he was right up to the very end. It's a shame that such a gruesome death befell him, but from all reports, he died suddenly and suffered little if at all." Orson tugged at his collar. "So, we bid Ted a final farewell. Perhaps in that university system in the sky, Ted will, after all, get to publish his book. Goodbye, Ted."

The choir sang a song called "This Is the Road to Our Savior Lord Our Christ" while the attendants stood with hymnals open before them, mouthing the words and flashing to each other bewildered looks. Then, as the choir ended its final amen with a harmonious hum, Theodore Street sat up in his coffin. A hush filled the church, as one might expect, but it was not long-lived. Emily Street screamed and tried to crawl up her mother's side while Perry Street's mouth formed the word Daddy over and over. Gloria Street fainted but remained frozen upright with wide-open eyes. Gloria's sister made a break for the door, her large feet tripping her near the end of the aisle's red carpet, causing her to roll to a stop at a blind man's feet with her dress over her head. Orville Orson farted and farted again. The dean prayed, loudly. The Beowulf woman reached into her bag and readied the pepper spray her fiance had bought for her.


Excerpted from AMERICAN DESERT by Percival Everett Copyright © 2004 by Percival Everett. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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