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“Anything we take for granted, Mr. Everett means to show us, may turn out to be a lie.” —Wall Street Journal
* Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize * Finalist for the PEN / Faulkner Award for Fiction *
A story inside a story inside a story. A man visits his aging father in a nursing home, where his father writes the novel he imagines his son would write. Or is it the novel that the son imagines his father would imagine, if he ...
“Anything we take for granted, Mr. Everett means to show us, may turn out to be a lie.” —Wall Street Journal
* Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize * Finalist for the PEN / Faulkner Award for Fiction *
A story inside a story inside a story. A man visits his aging father in a nursing home, where his father writes the novel he imagines his son would write. Or is it the novel that the son imagines his father would imagine, if he were to imagine the kind of novel the son would write?
Let’s simplify: a woman seeks an apprenticeship with a painter, claiming to be his long-lost daughter. A contractor-for-hire named Murphy can’t distinguish between the two brothers who employ him. And in Murphy’s troubled dreams, Nat Turner imagines the life of William Styron. These narratives twist together with anecdotes from the nursing home, each building on the other until they crest in a wild, outlandish excursion of the inmates led by the father. Anchoring these shifting plotlines is a running commentary between father and son that sheds doubt on the truthfulness of each story. Because, after all, what narrator can we ever trust?
Not only is Percival Everett by Virgil Russell a powerful, compassionate meditation on old age and its humiliations, it is an ingenious culmination of Everett’s recurring preoccupations. All of his prior work, his metaphysical and philosophical inquiries, his investigations into the nature of narrative, have led to this masterful book. Percival Everett has never been more cunning, more brilliant and subversive, than he is in this, his most important and elusive novel to date.
"[A] stark, shattering novel. . . . The splintered stories keep their urgency even as they lose their drift. The note of sadness struck in the dedication swells and echoes through the wreckage of narrative, reaching a pitch of extraordinary anguish. This meta-fiction is deeply moving." —The Wall Street Journal
"A potent and thoughtful exploration of the bonds between fathers and children." —The Washington Post
"Everett is one of the most gifted and versatile of contemporary writers. . . . His work takes hold of us and won't let go." —Alan Cheuse, NPR.org
"Though funny, the novel also possesses a terrible and still sadness, concerning as it does not only William Styron and Nat Turner but also aging and death, the tragic hatred of racists, the depth of solitude at life's end. . . . The book, though it's frequently philosophical, is not in the least boring. Dear reader, how that impressed me! For there are times when philosophy can be less than action-packed. This is not one of them. Therefore, I heartily commend this book to you. It's like a carnival ride, but not the kind where you vomit. . . . Percival Everett numbers among his very best." —Lydia Millet, Los Angeles Times
"Funny, insightful, and unpredictable. . . . Everett is a master of his trade." —Time Out Chicago
"Possessed by a loopy, madcap energy. . . . [Everett] demonstrates that a literary work can be cerebral, emotionally affecting, and highly readable at the same time. The novel also turns out to be relentlessly funny." —Paste Magazine
"In a more perfect world the novelist Percival Everett would dominate the bestseller list to such a degree that they would need to give him his own category, Harry Potter style. . . . The man is practically A Goddamn National Treasure." —Alex Balk, The Awl
"Combines the philosophical puzzling of Beckett with the oddball discursiveness of Brautigan, and has the playfulness of both." —PWxyz, "PW Best Books of 2013"
"Witty [and] perceptive . . . Everett's writing is dazzling throughout." —PopMatters
"[Contains] scenes of great emotional authenticity. . . . Everett's metafictional reflections on identity will further solidify his critical reputation." —Shelf Awareness
"Everett gives us a work of fiction that grapples with grief, the fragility of human life, death, relationships, loneliness, and yearning for purpose. . . We are left breathless, with heartache and with the understanding we are all made of stories, nothing but products of our diverging and converging plot lines that eventually will come to an inexorable point." —ZYZZYVA
"[Percival Everett is] so humanely adept at getting to the heart of the human condition. . . . Everett has created much more than an exercise in unreliable narration, an exploration of the nature of language and the rationales we create to keep ourselves going as we grow old. By the conclusion, every sentence, indeed every word, has come to seem like a valuable key, not just to this puzzle of a novel, but to the meaning of existence." —Publishers Weekly
"[Percival Everett by Virgil Russell is] an innovative exploration of the outer limits of narrative ambiguity, and it's also a deeply felt book about a father and a son. . . . An intriguing and intricate puzzle of a novel." —Booklist
"The heart of storytelling and the heart of a complicated man beat together in this extraordinary meditation on love, language, and the irrevocable action of time. Who tells whose story when and why and how do we know when it's over? For Everett, it's never over, and it's never enough, and it's the very best thing we've got. A novel of surpassing intelligence, grief, and tenderness." —Stacey D'Erasmo, author of The Sky Below
"Within [a] narrative labyrinth, the novel is much more than an academic exercise . . . as it searches for the possibility of meaning in life as well as narrative and meditates on the process of aging and the inevitability of death." —Kirkus Reviews
Let me tell you about my dream, my father said. Two black men walk into a bar and the rosy-faced white barkeep says we don't serve niggers in here and one of the men points to the other and says but he's the president and the barkeep says that's his problem. So the president walks over and gives the barkeep a box and says these are Chilmark chocolates and the barkeep says thank you and reaches over to shake the president's hand. The president jumps back, says what's that? And the barkeep says it's a hand buzzer, a gag, get used to it, asshole.
And that was your dream? I asked him.
As best I can remember. And I've written something for you. He looked at my face. Not to you, but for you. It's sort of something you would write, if you wrote. Here it is:
And yet I continue to live. That was how my father put it, sitting in his wheelchair, the one he could not move around by himself, his right arm useless in his lap, his left nearly so, held up slightly just under his sternum, his new black Velcro-shut shoes uneven on the metal rests, this side of his face, the side near me, the left side, sagging visibly, his voice somewhere between his throat and the back of his tongue. And yet I continue to live. I had suggested that the salt my mother was sprinkling liberally over his food might not be the best thing for his high blood pressure, even though at his age, in his condition, who could really deny the man the simple pleasure of too much salt, but my mother snapped at me, saying, I've been taking care of him for a long time. My first thought was how true that was in so many good and bad ways. That was when my father spoke, making a joke and a comment and reminding me that in the vessel that looked something like him there was still the man I knew. And yet I continue to live, the right side of his mouth turning up in as much of a smile as his nerve-starved face would allow, and I laughed with him. My mother had not heard what he had said and even if she had, it would have been lost on her, but she reacted to our laughter, and that reaction was what it would have been if she had heard his comment and had understood, it would have made no difference, none at all, as she became angry, insecure, and jealous that we were sharing anything.
My father was depressed, it took no genius to see that, sitting there all day long in that room in what they call an assisted living facility, pressing his button and waiting for the orderly to come hook him up to a lift to take him to the toilet, pressing his button because the nurses were late getting him ready for bed and he was falling asleep in his chair, pressing his button because there was nothing else to do but press the damn button. I was depressed too, seeing him that way, then leaving to live my own life far away, knowing his condition, knowing his sadness, knowing his boredom, and depressed because I could for days on end live my life without feeling the horror of his daily existence. What I didn't know was how he could continue to live, sitting there day after day, seeming so weak, feeling so little through his body and feeling so much through his mind, his hand shaking, a crooked finger in the air when he was trying to tell me something, I could even see it when we were on the phone. How, like this, at seventy-nine could he still be alive? Then during one of my useless visits, visits that I made because I felt I ought to, visits I made because I loved him, though I always seemed to make him sadder, he said, his crooked finger resting peacefully on the back of his right hand, What do you think of this? His voice was clearer that it had been in years, the words finding the full theater of his mouth, his eyes sharp on me. I think it's awful, I told him, because he asked for very little and deserved the truth. You should love your father more, I think he said, the voice again retreating. I asked if he thought I didn't visit enough and he shook his head, a gesture I didn't know how to read and left me wondering if he meant that I did not visit enough or that I did. Do you want me to visit more? I asked and he looked at me with the eyes I had always known and even though now they were milky and red and weak, they became his again and he said, Just one more time.
I flew away from Philadelphia feeling that I understood all too well and tried not to understand anything, tried not see anything. There was an animated in-flight movie that I watched without sound and I was struck by just how realistic the whole thing was, the talking animals and stretched faces seeming to make perfect sense. I missed my daughter and was glad to be flying home, found some light in the thought that she would be peacefully sleeping when I walked into the house and that I would peek into her room and see her face in the glow of her night-light. And I resolved that I would never put her in the position that I was now in, that I would not let my body fail me to the point that I could not control my own time and space and direction. It had all sneaked up on my father and on me as well, thinking, he and my brother and I, that he would turn a corner and be new in some way, but that corner turned out to be a steep hill and gravity turned out to be as inevitable as we all know it is. And as quickly as the thought of my daughter had brought me back to some happiness, my love for her returned me to a rather selfish consideration of my own future, however cloaked in that fake veil of concern for what she would face, and finally back to the matter at hand, the question put to me, the request made by my father. But how?
You don't live in Philadelphia, I told him. Dad, we're both here in California.
It's called fiction, son. This is the story you would be writing if you were a fiction writer.
You're damn right it's depressing. You're not very bright, are you?
What am I supposed to do with this?
If you kill me, he said, if you kill me, then I will be sad, yes, confused, no doubt, maybe even angry, if you kill me, and if you don't, if you don't kill me, then I will feel nothing, feel nothing forever, he said to me, and that is a long time. This while he held his book that his failed vision would not allow him to read, not the Bible or any bible, as he would never, in the light or in the dark, actually or pretend to read the Bible or any bible, but he held in his lap, useless in his lap, his soiled Principia Mathematica and he spoke of Russell glowingly and admitted he knew little about Whitehead except that his name was unfortunate. I can't read this anymore, he said, this book, because my eyes are useless. I hate similes, my father said, have always hated them, even the good ones and there are no good ones, except maybe this one. His useless eyes narrowed and he said, I sit here, useless, like a bad simile, then he said, perhaps I should say any simile, given what I just said, the adjective bad being superfluous. If you kill me, if you do, he said, then I won't tell, if you don't tell me that I am telling my story, is what he said. I won't tell the world that I have no son if you make it so that you have no father, because I cannot walk or even tremble, he said, Russell was a good man, was good to Wittgenstein even though Wittgenstein was a pompous asshole. Well, here's a game for Ludwig, Pin the Tail on the Narrator, and he began with no pause except for that silence that must exist before one begins, and he said to do away with he said and began with I was born when I was twenty-three or maybe he was born when he was twenty-three, a year much better than the twenty-second, during which he tried to kill himself with paracetamol, his liver would never recover completely, his father and he unable to agree, to come together, harmonize, or square, his father, doctor father, Doctor Father, unable to fathom why in 1960 his son would rather fill his head with logic than go to medical school because how would he support himself and a family and then at twenty-three and in medical school he was happy, and no one understood why, even if he had told them they would not have understood, happy because he finally understood that the Ontological Argument was sound and yet he knew with all certainty, beyond all doubt, that there was not and had never been any god. If there was no god and the argument for his existence was sound, then language was a great failure or deceiver or bad toy or good toy, that it could be wound up or twisted and if he knew that, that it could not be trusted, then he knew where to put it, how to view it, that it was there for his pleasure, that it was not pernicious, for how could a thing so twisted finally mean anything. Therefore, the lovely therefore, as the argument carried, not a good argument like the Ontological Argument, perhaps not even sound or valid, that he could become a doctor, be a husband, be a father, and rest, if not easy, but rest knowing that it was all a game, not some silly language game, but a walking, running, tackling, blocking, dodging, hitting, hiding, sliding, diving game where everybody dies before they find out it's just a game. But he was twenty-three when he understood what he would for the rest of his life refer to as the truth, even with his patients and his colleagues, according to the truth, he would say, according to the truth you have six months to live, according to the truth your wife will leave you, the truth never unraveled, clarified, solved, or explained, never defined, never deciphered or illuminated, but the truth, it coming to this, according to the truth A = A is not the same thing as A is A, and may A have mercy upon your pathetic, wretched, immortal soul, according to the truth.
Why don't you get along with your brother?
Well, he left his first wife for an Italian woman. But it wasn't what you think. Aside from the hair, of which she had an abundance, she looked like Benito Mussolini. I have trouble with him because he then left her for a Frenchwoman who looked like the Italian actress Monica Vitti.
You found this morally objectionable.
Not at all. It made me jealous.
And that's okay.
According to the truth, it's just fine. You know what the problem with life is? It's that we can write our own stories but not other people's. Take you, for example. I have a wholly different story charted for you.
Of course you do.
There's no need to get an attitude. In fact, I'll decide that you don't have one and so it will be. How's that?
Makes things easier.
That's more like it.
I should never have become a doctor.
You're not a doctor.
What's that supposed to mean?
I'm an old man. You tell me. Regardless of what you've heard, wisdom does not come with age. Wisdom comes from periods of excessive sexual activity.
I think I knew that.
That's the you I like. The funny you. Not the you who mopes around wondering how you're going to take care of the sad business at hand. What I wouldn't give to get laid.
I know my pecker's dead. So am I. But I don't know that, I guess. Tell me, tell me, tell me true, tell me I'm dead, all frozen and blue. Tell me I'm rigid, stiff as a board, and playing croquet on the lawn with the lord. You see I don't even capitalize god when I'm speaking.
Did you just make that up?
What the fuck does that matter? If you must know, it's from Hamlet, act two hundred, scene fifty-nine.
You see I have this one finger that works, a shutter finger, and so I want a camera, he said to me. Both of his hands, as a matter of fact, worked, along with much of him. I want to start taking pictures he said and I told him that was a great idea and so I bought him a camera, a digital Leica as all cameras are digital now, he making a mock complaint about wanting film, I want the chemicals and all, he said, but finally made nothing of it, holding the camera in his lap, failing to look through the eyepiece or at the little screen, and snapping away. I'm chronicling all that I, rather, my lap sees, indiscriminate and unjudging, no framing, no pictorial editorializing, just mere reception of, if not reality, then the constituent elements of what we call or choose to call the world. It's a camera, Dad, I said to him and he nodded, turning the thing over and over as if he'd never seen one before, tilting it up to photograph whatever he thought occupied my space in his so-called world. The physics are still basically the same, he said, computers notwithstanding. Light in, image captured upside down.
Every painting has its own lawfulness, its own logic, its own rules. It could have been that I established such logic for my canvases, but I admit that I really do not know. To even consider this away from any singular painting is the cruelty of abstraction, a cutting into the flesh of reality, for as I abstract toward some understanding I necessarily lean toward some example and as I so lean the whole foundation of my argument topples over under the weight of the sheer inadequacy of my example. No one thing can represent all things. Not even within a class it turns out. This may or may not be true. The hardest thing for me was the judgment that there was no need for any one of my paintings to exist, their own inherent rules of logic notwithstanding. I would argue to myself that my expression was but a small participation in the human attempt to move beyond the base and vulgar, purely animal (as if that were a bad thing), and short existence on this planet. And I would do this all the while attempting to commune with, rejoin with, celebrate, the base, vulgar, and pure animal part of myself. Just as modernism's logical conclusion has to be socialism while ironically relying on and feeding on the construction of an elite class, so my paintings and the art of my time could only pretend to culminate in anarchy while, strangely enough not ironically, finding it impossible to exist without markets and well-defined cliques and order. I have finally circled about, hovered, loitered enough to recognize that my only criterion for the worth of a painting is whether I like looking at it. I no longer say that this painting is good or bad, it might be sentimental, it might be bright, it might be muddy, it might be a cliché, but it is neither good nor bad. Do I like looking at it? That is all I ask. That is all I now answer. I walk the hills behind my house happy because I have learned this. I learned it as I turned my life into a camera obscura, putting a pinhole in one side of my world, letting the scene outside come to me upside down but with accurate perspective. I was feeling rather smug thinking this and enjoying a cup of tea when I saw a head bounce by a window of my studio. I stepped outside.
There was a young woman standing in my drive. She was of medium height, a little heavy, her reddish hair in short curls. Gregory Lang?
My name is Meg Caro, she said. She stepped forward to shake my hand.
What can I do for you?
You're the painter, right?
I'm a painter, too. At least I want to be. I want to be your apprentice. She stood straighter.
This is not the Middle Ages, I said.
Your intern then.
I've never seen your work. I don't know you. You might be dangerous. For all you know, I'm dangerous. I don't take on apprentices or interns.
I have some photographs of my paintings, she said.
I don't care. I'm flattered, but I don't care.
Please, look at them.
I looked down the dirt lane and wished that my wife would drive in, but she wouldn't be home for another couple of hours.
What will it hurt to look? she asked.
You say your name is Meg?
How old are you, Meg Caro?
Twenty-two, she said.
That's old enough to know better than to visit a strange man all alone.
Where are you from, Meg Caro?
Let me see the pictures.
She opened her backpack and handed me a ring binder.
I opened it but couldn't see. I'll have to get my glasses, I said.
They're on your head.
Thanks. I looked at the pictures of her paintings. These are pretty good.
I studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.
That should help me like the paintings more?
No, I just thought.
I'd stepped on her a bit, so I said, I like the work. Of course, you can tell only so much from photos. The paintings were young, not uninteresting, and nice enough to look at. Photos are so flat.
Oh, I know, she said.
I studied her broad face for a second. Come in here, I said. I led her into my studio. See that big painting on the wall. I had a ten-by-twelve-foot canvas nailed up. Tell me what you think?
She breathed, then sighed. I like parts of it, she said. It reminds me of another of your paintings. That really big yellow one in Philadelphia. Somehow this seems like two paintings.
I stood next to her and stared at the work.
The underpainting seems somehow warmer on the left side. Is there some blue under there? Maybe some Indian yellow. She stepped back, leaned back. Her movements were confident, perhaps a little cocky.
Would you like some tea?
I went to the sink and put more water in my little battered electric pot. I glanced back to see that the woman was walking around the room, looking at drawings and notes and canvases.
What is this painting about?
Excerpted from PERCIVAL EVERETT BY VIRGIL RUSSELL by Percival Everett. Copyright © 2013 Percival Everett. Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
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