Parody That’s Personal


At the moment, there is something very, well, Percival L. Everett-like transpiring within author Percival L. Everett’s life. He couldn’t have written it better: The teasing, compact irony he now inhabits is much like the mazes and mirrors he animates on his pages. It might be premature to guess whether this predicament brings him chagrin or amusement. After all, it is still very early in the yarn.

During a break squeezed into a day of classes and meetings in his office at USC, Everett sits in a beam of last-blast summer sun, considering plots and parallels.

In his witty and withering new novel “Erasure” (University Press of New England), Everett drops readers into the suddenly upended life of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison--an African American college professor edging into his middle years. A man of idiosyncratic pursuits and tastes, Monk, as he’s known by close friends and family, has made a relatively quiet life for himself in reflective pursuits: fly-fishing, woodworking, teaching and writing obtuse books for university and/or boutique presses.


Ellison, like Everett, is a man who does not define himself by his race but sees it as just one of the shadings that inform his outlook.

Ellison, like Everett, writes multilayered, “dense” books that find a devoted but slim audience.

And Ellison, somewhat like Everett, ultimately writes a book, a parody of “wannabe ghetto fiction,” that receives through-the-roof attention for reasons that make him increasingly uncomfortable.

But that is where the paths diverge--slightly. Whereas Ellison suddenly finds himself in an undertow that pulls him into raucous daytime talk shows and smarmy motion picture deals, ultimately leading him to lofty book prizes, Everett has, thus far, been simply observing an uncharacteristic blast of attention that’s kicked up around this, his 13th book. Better late than never, to be sure. But, not to be a spoiler, he has his concerns.

For one thing, it’s the parody that his character Everett creates--”My Pafology,” an “authentic” take on ghetto life by Everett’s invented gangsta alter ego Stagg R. Leigh--that has prompted much of the commentary about “Erasure.”

“There’s a terrible irony that this book is getting a lot of attention for the very reason that I wrote the book,” Everett says, his brow furrowing just for a moment to add gravity to an already serious face. “Everybody is interested in the race question ... instead of the book itself. The parody within the parody. But ... “ he stops himself, his expression relaxing into a smile, “I’m just a writer. And I don’t want to shade the way someone might come to the work.”


For a man who admits he has always lived and reveled in remote places, this sudden shake-up is an adjustment. After a career of modest book sales, interpretations, expectations and reporters’ questions now encroach. In jeans, a soft blue short-sleeved shirt and scuffed riding boots, Everett, 44, sits ramrod straight, in a straight-back chair against a wall. He is prepared, it seems at first, not for an interview but an inquisition.

“I don’t usually say yes to these things,” he tosses out, not threateningly, but as point of clarification. “But I’ve promised I would be better.”

His office reflects the ease of familiarly negotiated worlds. It’s crowded with the typical trappings of an English professor--multiple volumes of Norton Anthologies line orderly shelves, papers and files compete for attention with a nonstop ringing telephone and student footfalls. Photos of his wife, Francesca, and pastoral scenes taken on their farm near the Banning Pass dot the walls. And in a frame next to his computer, a formal, regal portrait of his mule, named, like the main character of “Erasure,” after the humorously oblique bebop musician, Thelonious Monk.

In its few weeks on the shelves, “Erasure” has been called Everett’s “breakthrough book.” Publisher’s Weekly has, in a starred review, hailed “an over-the-top masterpiece”; the New York Times Book Review has called it “cunning” and “well-calibrated.” Everett weighs the “breakthrough” brand--and the rest of the adulation, for that matter--somewhat dubiously.

“Well, one hopes that it will have financially positive effects on me,” he says, carefully stringing together his words, and creating chasms of pauses. “But I don’t think about it too much. I just want to write books. And apparently for the most part, I don’t want to write books that are terribly commercially successful. But I want to write what I want to write.

“To me, a breakthrough book is when I write a novel better than I’ve written before--not that it sells more copies. If I look at what’s popular, that’s not exactly great company. For good or bad, I want to make better art every time I go to work.”


With “Erasure,” he has produced a multilayered, tightly written novel that refuses to equivocate. It’s a funhouse of manipulated reflections, lives viewed through screens and lenses. The story winds through cutaways and short stories, pieces of Greek chorus conversations between philosophers and artists, world leaders--all alternate prisms glimpsing family, academia, identity and pop culture.

Monk Ellison is forced to confront the chaos erupting within his once orderly, even sealed-off, life--his mother’s advancing age and fading memory; his crumbling family; his withering publishing career. The devastation is made more bracing when it coincides with the rising star of an Oberlin-educated young black woman’s runaway bestseller “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.”

Based on the author’s two-day visit to Harlem to visit relatives, “Ghetto,” is a “typical” story of a 15-year-old black girl named Sharonda F’rinda Johnson, pregnant with her first child, who lives with her drug addict mother and mentally deficient brother. (“A masterpiece of African American literature. One can actually hear the voices of her people as they make their way through the experience which is and can only be Black America,” Monk reads on a plane trip back from D.C. to L.A. in a highly respected culture magazine.)

His familial loose ends and that last straw become kindling--the impetus leading Monk to divine the persona Stagg R. Leigh--who pens the rebuttal--”My Pafology”--as told by Van Go Jenkins. But both the parody and persona ultimately threaten to erase not just Monk’s ambitions but Monk himself.

While much is played for laughs, “Erasure” is a trenchant examination of the labels and assumptions that the outside affixes on others, and that many, in turn, unquestioningly affix on themselves. There is a lot here, but that is typical of an Everett story.

His books defy easy category. “Suder” (Viking, 1983), his first novel, published when he was 26 and in graduate school, focuses on a black baseball player marooned in a professional and personal slump who takes to the road; “Frenzy” (Graywolf, 1996), is set in the world of Greek mythology; “Glyph” (Graywolf, 1999), tracks a baby post-structuralist genius, who cuts his teeth, as it were, on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus .”


But Monk’s story is far less fanciful, something Everett puzzled out as a daily exercise: “It wasn’t hard. I just looked in the mirror for that. I’ve heard what he hears in the novel enough. I wouldn’t say that the novel is strictly autobiographical, but our experiences are pretty close.”

For instance, the experience of browsing the bookstores, reading dust jackets and scanning reviews that at once trumpet and definitively outline “the authentic black story.” “It’s funny,” he says. “We don’t have any white stories.” “My Pafology” was Everett’s response to his frustration, and it pushed the larger book into being.

Black fiction, black imprints, black themes--such labels disconcert Everett. “It’s irritating when we have this weird ‘life imitating art imitating life’ thing going on. And it takes the wind right out of your sails if you want to write seriously.”

Expectations dog writers, particularly in the realm of race: “It’s frustrating,” he says, even with this new work. “Everyone calls [‘Erasure’] a ‘ferocious attack”’ on a culture that celebrates prose that sounds like “My Pafology.” But he takes issue with the “attack” assessment of his book. “I don’t see it that way at all. I see it as fairly calculated. I’m amused more than anything. I find all of this rather silly. It’s not important enough to have me disgusted with the world or life.”

Narrow constructs and thinly sketched caricatures persist in popular culture, says Everett, because “audiences aren’t discriminating. On the one hand, I think the so-called black audience is so happy to see black people in books or on screen in any way that they’ll go to see something, and the black and white audiences have been brainwashed to think that ‘this is The Black Experience.’ And the fact that I ride horses and fly fish doesn’t make me any less black. We get cheated out of geographic differences. Where you live affects the way you think, no matter what color you are.”

Born in Fort Gordon, Ga., Everett spent time in Tennessee and Columbia, S.C. He studied philosophy and biochemistry at the University of Miami and creative writing at Brown. “I liked science, and I like mathematical logic.” So the puzzles of science and words and people and their language “are not as different as they sound.”


He’s knocked about variously as a ranch worker, jazz musician, high school teacher. Those different incarnations have enhanced his writer’s ear and broadened his vision. “I write about people. Finally, my characters are people, and they talk to people in the world. I think that it is interesting that people do things. I like being engaged with the world in which I live. I don’t create work in a vacuum. A lot of my work might be considered esoteric or, for lack of a better word, dense--I believe that it’s connected to the real world.”

It’s a fluid, unwieldy world Everett chooses to embrace and ultimately reconstruct on a page, one dominated, finally, by complex themes. “I don’t feel that I’m a natural storyteller,” he says. “I don’t spin yarns. I don’t like collecting family history. I’m motivated by ideas.”