A broken man

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James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America.

Percival EVERETT has made a career out of flouting expectations. A bold and prolific novelist, he has forged a nervy, caustic body of work that defies easy categorization. His insistence on aesthetic freedom has not been without its costs. In the clever satire “Erasure” (2001), he outlined the bleak predicament of the African American writer who, like Everett himself, chooses to write something other than stereotypically “black” literature. The despairing novelist ghostwrites a spoof of inner-city fiction called “Ma Pafology” and, to his sad bewilderment, is lionized by publishers, critics and the public, none of whom get the joke.

Everett has staked out some of the outlying reaches of American fiction and, in particular, has shown himself to be fiendishly good at parody. In “Glyph” (1999), a genius toddler mute narrates a madcap misadventure that zigzags through an America of menacing psychologists and predatory priests. “God’s Country” (1994) sends up the generic conventions of the western in outrageous fashion. Everett maintains that “all novels are experimental,” but he can’t be pigeonholed as an experimental novelist in the usual sense of the term; he has proved himself adept in more realistic modes as well. In “Wounded” (2005), for example, a somber account of a hate crime in Wyoming, he eschews the conspicuously playful devices of his other books and writes about the Western landscape with elegance and restraint. Especially sensitive is his portrayal of horses.

Everett’s latest novel, “The Water Cure,” takes its title from a variant (and dubiously ironic) name for waterboarding, the most notorious means of torture to have come to light in the course of the war on terror.


The novel professes to be the confessions of Ishmael Kidder, a hyper-intelligent writer who, improbably, publishes lucrative romance novels under the pen name Estelle Gilliam. Already struggling with alcoholism and a midlife divorce, Kidder finds his life shattered when his 11-year-old daughter is raped and murdered. To slake his thirst for vengeance, he kidnaps the man who is the prime suspect in the case (linked to the crime via DNA and other evidence) and repeatedly waterboards his captive in the basement of his New Mexico home. However grisly, the scenario of “The Water Cure” is founded on a rich premise and is well suited to explore the psychology of vigilantism and the all-too-corruptible human urge for retribution.

Psychology, though, is too staid a domain to occupy the freewheeling Everett for long. The mostly plotless narrative of “The Water Cure” is defiantly fragmentary -- “I say to hell with story, with plot,” rages Kidder -- and throughout the novel, Everett veers off into territory that is by turns absurdist, sentimental or showily erudite.

Open the book at random and you might find yourself in the midst of an excursus on pre-Socratic philosophy, an imaginary dialogue with a medieval pope, an unidentified quotation from Molière (in French) or this one from an anonymous U.S. government official, who remarked of the Iraq war in August 2005: “What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground.” The welter of voices and genres sampled here includes jokes, parodies, sardonic limericks, police reports, metaphysical disquisitions, gnomic shards of literary theory (“Naming functions as a device for distancing as much as a emblem of connection”), and many passages in which Everett twists language into Joycean contortions: “F u fiend thieves pages punny,” runs one such phrase, “knough that they mean so futile as to plead useless.”

Such a disavowal seems disingenuous, or at least arch, because Everett, far from regarding his novel as a futile exercise, means to sustain a protracted howl of outrage at the present administration. Not only is the torture preferred by Kidder a technique that, although employed before the younger Bush’s presidency, is now indissolubly linked to it in the public mind. To reinforce the connection, Everett has Kidder call his waterboarded victim “W” (along with other names, “Art” among them). What emerges out of the bricolage of brainy references and other digressive gambits is one of the most elliptical, eccentric protest novels you’re ever likely to read.

As if to compensate for a certain opacity -- one might say coyness -- Everett launches several direct broadsides: “Who is to say that in the middle of it all I cannot stop and say . . . that my nation shames me as it rapes the world . . . that oil is the primary motivating concern of the stinking corrupt dumbass morally de-centered president and his greedy slimy . . . henchmen?” There are glancing references to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Haditha; among the childlike line drawings that punctuate the narrative is an image of an American flag in flames.

President Bush himself, early in the book, is graced with an expletive-laden epithet, and in a divertingly flamboyant episode the ghost of Thomas Jefferson -- “smoking an absurdly large joint” with Kidder -- laments the intellectual torpor of the current commander in chief: “I was interested in philosophy and architecture, he in fart jokes and cocaine.” Through Kidder, Everett acknowledges that he is at times “preaching to the so-called choir.” He also lashes out at the reader with truculent fury, asserting a right to “do what I like at any moment I like in this document or text or however we name it because this is my world, universe, neighborhood.” Such defensiveness sounds an unfortunately shrill note, which is hardly warranted: Kidder’s wide-ranging intellect provides “The Water Cure” with much of its jittery, crackling energy, belying the despair he feels.


If the novel falters, it does so not because of its avant-garde acrobatics but because it fails to satisfactorily explore the moral murkiness inherent in Kidder’s brutal revenge. For all the book’s evasions, ironies and learned asides, the torture at the center of “The Water Cure” remains a repugnant act, and Kidder’s claim that he has been guided to it by our corrupt culture -- “My country . . . has taught me to torture and so I torture,” he reflects, later adding that he has “learned well from my world, my culture, my government” -- seems a spurious justification.

That Kidder (who at one point advises the reader “[a]nd well you shouldn’t believe me”) serves periodically as Everett’s mouthpiece only adds to the confusion. Perhaps the sadistic acts in “The Water Cure” are mitigated in their cruelty by never seeming very real. Unable to transcend the confines of the page, these acts serve primarily as contrivances that prop up Everett’s angry, offbeat commentary. Daring, exasperating and occasionally brilliant, “The Water Cure” works best neither as political diatribe nor as psychological study but as the extended solo of a ravenous, indignant mind.