Percival Everett doesn’t particularly regard himself as a writer of satire, citing only Glyph as a truly satirical novel. However, if American Desert isn’t satire, I’m not sure what is. It is also high octane farce, a study in psychology and a surprisingly deep analysis of love. More of that later.
The bare bones of the novel are striking enough. Theodore ‘Ted’ Street, a man desparately unhappy with his home life, decides one morning to kill himself. Fortunately or unfortunately, on his way to do so he is killed in a car accident, his head being completely severed from his body. At his funeral three days later, to the consternation of the congregation, he rises from his coffin and looks around. A riot ensues, followed by a media maelstrom. But for Ted Street, neither alive nor dead, the trouble is only beginning.
From the start this is high pressure farce, told in a light, cartoonish manner. But don’t be fooled, because Everett is no two-dimensional farceur. Depth emerges gradually. The story takes in kidnap, religious fanaticism, execution (failed, since it is impossible to execute someone already dead), abduction by shadowy government bodies, vivisection, the cloning of Jesus Christ, escape, more religious fanaticism and finally redemption. And that’s only the half of it. I forgot to mention Roswell, and incest...
You get the picture? We’re not talking high realism here. But nor are we talking shallow nonsense, for in satirising contemporary culture – the media, the government, the church – Everett does begin to ask questions about what it is to be human and the nature of love. For all its high-energy fantasy, this is a novel with some weight.
At the start of the novel Ted is about to drown himself because he sees no value in his life and is essentially in a living death. He is failing at work (a university professor struggling to obtain a tenure), he is unfaithful to his wife and remote to his children, particularly his daughter. He is bored. He comes to believe ‘that life [is] over anyway, that he made no difference to anyone’. He has reached his nadir, or so he thinks. But by being thrust into a literal living death, by being brought unwillingly back to life, he is given a second chance and is forced to confront both the world and, more problematically, himself.
In his new, limbo-like state, he gradually comes to feel more alive than when he was really alive. When he returns to the family home after the riot at the church, ‘[t]he house felt more comfortable than ever’, different from the ‘cold tomb’ it had seemed before the accident. Later, as he lowers himself into the bath, he cries for the first time since he was eight. He re-reads novels and finds more resonance and joy than he ever had before. When he makes love to his wife, we are told:
Then, he felt genuinely good about himself, realizing that the old Ted could not have been so selfless, that the old Ted would have worried about his manhood and passive-aggressively taken his feeling of inadequacy out on her. Ted closed his eyes and drifted, he hoped, only into sleep.
A by-product of his life-in-death status is that he can read other people. He observes them and can see episodes from their past playing out, those moments of deceit and dissembling of which we are all guilty. In this way, Ted begins to understand life, and in so doing, he starts to uncover the truth about himself. Gradually, he finds meaning. Late in the novel we are told, ‘Ted had new resolve in the matter of protecting life in general.’ This is very different from the Ted to whom we were introduced two hundred pages earlier. The climax of the novel occurs when Ted turns that resolve into action by attempting to rescue twenty-seven children from a murderous religious cult who have blockaded themselves deep in the desert. ‘I am finally, in this life, a decent man’, he tells the watching world in a media interview afterwards, and the novel concludes with Ted having found a very human redemption. It is, I suppose, an 'It's A Wonderful Life' for our times.
This is a fine work. It operates at two levels – high farce and serious drama – but does so in a natural and unaffected way. This is a difficult trick to pull off. The slapstick quality of a farcical narrative makes it difficult to imbue any depth in the characters – even the master of the genre Vonnegut only really manages this with Slaughterhouse 5 – but here Everett succeeds impressively. He is often criticised for taking pot-shots at easy targets – the media, the lunatic religious fringe, the government, they are all so bizarre they are beyond parody, we are told – but while that may be so it is hardly Everett’s fault. What he does is isolate them in the cold, hard light of reality and confront us with the vacuousness at the heart of so much contemporary culture. But, ultimately, this is shown not in the farces that attach themselves to the shallow media practitioners or deranged religious cultists. That would indeed be too easy. No, instead Everett allows us to see their vacuousness through the basic decency of Ted Street. That is why this novel works as a piece of satire and that is why, for all its madcap inventiveness, it is also a remarkably subtle piece of writing.