Damned If I Do

By Percival Everett. Graywolf. 204 pp. Paperback, $15

To entertain, as Henry James once observed, is the first burden of the fiction writer, and happily there are a lot of ways to be, as James defined the job, "instructive and amusing." A writer can better express a truth, tell an engrossing tale, provide new information, shock, and (though this isn't for the faint of heart) even allow the story, like a bird dog who suddenly catches the scent of a deer, to leave the field and head straight off into the woods. The very good news is that Damned If I Do, Percival Everett's collection of stories, does many of those things. The bad news is that life in America these days, at least as reflected in these stories, does not seem to be so hot.

Everett's recent novel Erasure was an engrossing and hilarious meditation about what it means to be categorized as a black writer, or for that matter, categorized period. Damned If I Do takes on as its project (sort of) the subject of damnation. These stories present a variety of characters damned in many ways by their actions and, as the title implies, by their inactions as well. The reasons for the difficulties with action aren't so surprising: The goals the characters attempt are usually beyond their capacities to reach, or at least the capacity of the world to allow. Two blind old men go hunting for a mountain lion; a black man tries, in the most gentle and forbearing fashion imaginable, to connect with an old, frightened, white woman; a man hopes to stop the Wal-Martification of the country; another man (who just happens to be a famous mathematician) attempts to show his wife a talking fish and, failing that, to tell her that he loves her.

Whether these characters will ever succeed is beside the point, because not to act is also to be damned, or, as James Baldwin put it 25 years ago in lines that are still true today, to suffer "in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the non-white are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets." In other words, why bother to do anything? Yet to just lie low or hide out in a mental hospital, for example, won't save you either. Not that Everett's damnation is ever so overtly racial in its origin as Baldwin's; it's more the result of happening to live in the wrong time and/or place.

So what's to be done? A good question. In the first story of the collection, "The Fix," we meet a man who can repair anything, including chain saws, parking tickets, (wonderfully) a "manual mustard dispenser," and dead people. He discovers that the distinctions disappear, and he may as well be flipping burgers on an endless, moving grill. If there's no rest for the wicked in this world, then clearly there's none for the good either.

In the story with the fanciest title and no characters whatsoever, "The Devolution of Nuclear Associability," Everett elegantly and efficiently explains (diagrams included) the complete impossibility of communication among humans and therefore the impossibility of anything ever having permanence or meaning. If there were a way to communicate how he does this, I would.

Given a human world of such intense slipperiness and mutability, where is one to stand? Another good question, but this time there's an answer: in the natural world, for one place. The characters of "The Last Heat of Summer" are two boys who spend their time watching animals through binoculars. After seeing two male coyotes fight over a female, one of them wants to go down to where the battle took place. "What's the big deal about coyote blood?" the narrator asks. "I just want to see it, that's all," his friend replies. So they walked, he tells us, "through the prickly pears and purslane to the waterhole and there it was, on the sand by the water and some of it on a bleached piece of wood, the blood of the coyote. It was everything I hoped it would be, real." The other "real" that figures prominently in the book is the world of those few trout streams not yet dry or sterile or polluted, those places where fish can be counted on to respond to a fly in the same way they have for thousands of years.

Once we trade the natural world for the human, the substance becomes harder to locate. One way to find real things, however, is through the wordless nature of music in general, and jazz in particular, which (thanks to its being misunderstood by the majority of the damned) remains the openhearted expression of joy and sorrow and personal discovery. The hero of the story called "The Appropriation of Cultures" is a black jazz guitarist whose empowering revelation comes in the midst of playing, of all things, "Dixie."

And as long as we are speaking of jazz, one might mention the breadth of this collection, which makes it unlike so many contemporary compilations that offer up a dozen or so versions of essentially the same story. Damned If I Do creates the happy effect of never hearing the same chord progression twice. It's amazingly easy to keep on reading, as the stories shift from naturalistic to philosophic to surreal. All of them are welcoming, and each invites the reader to participate in the act of discovery, not out of obsession or false intimacy, but through a free-flowing generosity that engages not only the heart but the mind. *

Jim Krusoe is the author of a book of stories, "Blood Lake," and a novel, "Iceland."