Thursday, May 28, 2009

Wounded by Percival Everett

As a big fan of Percival Everett (see reviews of Erasure, Glyph and American Desert) I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed by Wounded. Yes, it’s good. At times it’s exceptionally tense. But overall the story felt manufactured, safe, predictable. For a writer who invented the anti-novel, My Pafology, the child savant Glyph and the dead man walking Ted Street, this is a considerable surprise.

As ever with Everett, it is a novel of issues. This time, we are confronting race and homophobia (with the odd pop at religion and the government thrown in – Everett is unable to stop himself satirising on a broad canvas – in small-town, western America. As the protagonist, John Hunt, describes it, 'It’s a litle town. It’s okay. Mostly white. Indians get treated like shit. You know, America.' Hunt is a black widower who lives with his uncle Gus (an ex-con, ex-murderer, but in a safe, cuddly sort of way) in the Wyoming desert and works as a horse trainer. He has experienced racism, he says, but is casual about it. He lives an easy life, laconically deciding problems ‘aren’t his business’ or that he ‘doesn’t care’ about events. His being black isn’t an issue for him, nor is it for anyone else, or so he believes. He is, we gradually come to realise, living a blinkered existence, a typical liberal type who believes that evil is just a form of intolerance and intolerance is just a form of crankiness and that love and legislation could sweep it all away. In this fashion he meanders through his days, finally allowing himself to be seduced out of mourning for his ex-wife (six years dead) by neighbour Morgan, a fellow rancher. Events begin to unravel, however, after the brutal murder of a gay man and the arrest for the crime of Hurt’s workman, Wallace.

The murder sparks a gay rights march in the town, attended by David, the son of one of Hunt’s old college friends, and David’s partner Robert. Ugly scenes begin to unfold, involving David and Robert, and friends of Hunt on the reservation, and a family of coyotes burned out of their burrow. Meanwhile Hunt is forced to confront his own feelings about homosexuality. When Morgan asks him if David and Robert being gay bothers him, he replies: ‘“You know, that’s the thing. I don’t think it did, but I’m not sure. I don’t care at all about that stuff, but I have to admit I wasn’t completely comfortable.’

Nobody, Everett is telling us, is entirely free of prejudice. It’s a truism, of course, and could become banal in the wrong hands, but Everett is expert at this. The feelings of neo-Nazi thugs, thoughtless country bigots and thoughtful liberals are counterpointed neatly, and the answers are never as straightforward as any of those standard character-types might wish. ‘Nobody’s got the hate market cornered in this country,’ we are told.

All of this is interesting enough, and Everett is a brilliant writer, so the pace is perfect and, although there is no great mystery involved in the plot, it is still remarkably tense, a consistent page turner. So why the disappointment?

What irritates me about the novel is the contrivance, the use of all those moribund literary techniques which mark out the great ‘serious’ novel. We have an ageing, avuncular uncle who conveniently gets a fatal disease. We have a gun introduced early, with the knowledge that it is permanently kept clean, never used. Guess what happens, Mr Chekhov? We have a flashback scene in which Hurt stupidly confesses an illicit kiss to his wife with unfortunate consequences. Hey ho, it happens again with Morgan, who’d have thought it? There are wounded humans galore in the narrative, and it’s counterpointed by the wounded, three-legged coyote cub which is the sole survivor of the firebombing. Hurt even compares himself to the creature at one stage. His ex-wife was too scared to venture into the cave, but his new girlfriend encourages him to explore even deeper and, of course, they have sex there. Symbolic, huh? It’s this tedious layering of meaning, everything resonating because it chimes with something else, everything fitting neatly together so that each and every single piece of plot is there because it is significant and links to something else. I hate this kind of false, manufactured nonsense. Nothing happens because it just did – it has to happen in relation to something else. How clever we all are, making these connections.

And the characterisation becomes crude to the point of parody at times. The thoughtless father of the gay boy is so boorish it is simply incredible, and his bimbo paramour, Pammie, younger than her soon-to-be step-son, is a crude caricature. The good people – Gus and Morgan – are simply too nice. In the end, nothing feels real. This is a great pity because the ending could be very shocking, but some of the impact is dissipated by the formulaic nature of the plot and characterisation.

So, a good novel, exploring decent territory, but in the final analysis not quite enough.

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