In 2004, novelist Percival Everett co-wrote a book with the title — deep breath — “A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as Told to Percival Everett & James Kincaid.” The title hints at a few of the hallmarks of Everett’s lengthy career, which encompasses more than 20 books: healthy doses of satire, tweaks to narrative convention and some pointed questions about race. He is also fond of knocking down the wall between author and character. His 2009 novel, “ I Am Not Sidney Poitier ,” included a cameo by Percival Everett, an academic fiction writer not unlike himself. So, though the title of his new novel, “Percival Everett by Virgil Russell,” might seem odd at first, for Everett it’s just another day at the office.
Still, something serious is going on underneath that playfully metafictional title. “Virgil Russell” is dedicated to Everett’s father, who died in 2010, and this tricky, at times baffling novel circles around themes of loss and how much parents and children unknowingly share. The book opens with an elderly man in a wheelchair talking to his son, and their stories will ramble and commingle to the point that it’s hard to tell who’s relating what to whom. “Let me tell you about my dream, my father said,” goes the first line — fair warning that this story won’t be told straight.
Make that a universe of stories. One involves Murphy, a ranch owner and the vet who arrives to tend to a horse that’s been shot. Another is about Gregory Lang, a painter who’s confronted by a young woman claiming to be his daughter. Yet another is about a black author in 1963 who’s trying to add more bite to a speech about nonviolent resistance, and one more follows a novelist whose sole novel was a touchstone for ’60s revolutionary types. Another, more central story is about a group of nursing home residents who stage a revolt against bullying orderlies. These tales pick up and drop off, as if the only point were to get them out. “You know what the problem with life is?” the father says. “It’s that we can write our own stories but not other people’s.”
Or is that the son talking? Same difference, Everett suggests. “I’m an old man or his son writing an old man writing his son writing an old man,” he writes, and as the novel deepens, the book’s tone acquires a tender yet flinty aspect, a sense that father and son are trading these scraps of stories to forestall death. “You are Lang,” someone commands; “I’ll be Murphy,” someone insists. This blurring of identities is baked into the book’s structure: Its first two sections are titled “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus” — two terms for Venus, which happens to be the title of the third section.
Novels like this tend to be described — or should I say “written off”? — as experimental. But Everett is fond of saying that all novels are experiments, and a book like “Virgil Russell” is part of a modern lineage that includes novelists such as Renata Adler, Gilbert Sorrentino and David Foster Wallace, all of whom have run conventional narrative through a thresher to better capture the emotions of confusion and isolation, and to show how unfit for duty mere words are. As Everett puts it, “Our speaking, our writing, our groping always lags behind language.”
If you can accept the book’s lack of typical novelistic support beams, there’s plenty of humor amid the somber setting. Literary riffs abound — Dante, as the title suggests, is one of the main targets. But Everett can also be a wittily earthbound storyteller. He describes a couple “growing as cold as an overworn cliche,” and he even cracks wise about the physical collapse at the heart of the book: “Isn’t it amazing how many questions one manufactures when in a vegetative state? Other than Texas.”
There’s no question that “Percival Everett by Virgil Russell” is a challenge. Golf balls and silk ties have nothing to fear from this book as Father’s Day gifts go, yet it finds its own way to be a potent and thoughtful exploration of the bonds between fathers and children. And besides, as the father says, “Where’s the joy in saying anything flat out?”
Athitakis is a reviewer in Washington.
PERCIVAL EVERETT BY VIRGIL RUSSELL
By Percival Everett
Graywolf. 227 pp. Paperback, $15