Several Attempts at Understanding Percival Everett

coverToward the end of Percival Everett’s 2021 novel The Trees, about a series of murders in present-day Money, Mississippi, the small town where 13-year-old Emmet Till was brutally lynched in 1955, a list of Black Americans who died by lynching is read aloud by an academic who is researching the origins of racial violence. The list, compiled by a local mystic, is only partial, but it is long and overwhelming. It contains many victims whose names remain unknown. One of the names on the list is David Walker, along with his wife and four small children, who are nameless. Walker and his family were murdered in front of their Kentucky home on October 3, 1908, by 50 members of the racist vigilante group the Night Riders, which accused Walker of swearing at a white woman. The lynching was well-documented, but the names of Walker’s wife and children are never mentioned.

coverAfter the publication of The Trees, a reader from Tennessee wrote to Everett to tell him that David Walker’s wife was named Annie. Everett reflected on what this correction meant to him during his acceptance speech after winning the PEN/Jean Stein Award for his 2023 novel Dr. No. “Now when I do the reading, I say David Walker, Annie Walker, David and Annie Walker’s four children,” he said. “I would never have learned that, it would never have meant anything to me, if I hadn’t written about it. And that changed my life.”

coverWhen I spoke with Everett recently, I asked him about the importance of that moment and he told me, “Not to downplay it, but as an artist from this culture, you have to hang on to those little moments. That’s sad to say.” We were speaking a few weeks ahead of the release of his latest novel, James. I have read roughly half of Everett’s 35 published works and I was, to put it mildly, nervous to be speaking with the man behind the books. I knew from the dozens of other interviews I had read with him that Everett doesn’t love doing press. “I wonder why?” he joked to me.

Speaking over the phone, not having body language or cues to read, didn’t make our interview any easier. Maya Binyam, in her recent New Yorker profile of Everett, described feeling “like a lawyer at an unsuccessful deposition” during their initial interview. At the end of my interview, Everett apologized, noting that he is aware that he makes for a difficult interview subject.

Everett doesn’t often validate specific interpretations or theories of his work. The fact that this work often manages to be simultaneously hilarious, ambiguous, deeply moving, and filled with a kind of muted anger at America complicates efforts to interpret either it or Everett’s politics. When he is in the humor to indulge interpretations, he will often entertain a potential reading by saying that it’s not what he intended, but, as far as he is concerned, the process of meaning-making, insofar as it can be said to be a duty, belongs to the reader alone—and it is the reader alone, through their engagement with the text, who completes this process of meaning-making. Everett refuses to hold your hand or tell you what to think. Curiously, this leaves you feeling like the wind has been taken out of your interpretation—or, in my case, my own.

coverKnowing this, I decided to ask if he sees his work as complicating the idea of America and its history—if it would be fair to say that his writing forces Americans to confront what they would rather forget, even disabusing certain Americans of the lies they tell themselves about how fair and just their society is? Three recent works—James, The Trees, and The Book of Training (2019)—all published within the last five years, are ostensibly books about slavery and its firstborn, lynching.

coverI try to draw a connection between The Trees—a reimagining of the history of lynching in America in which contemporary whites are made to pay for the sins of their ancestors—and his most recent book, James—a reimagining of one of the great American novels, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—as twinned reclamations, or subversions, of received narratives so ingrained in the American psyche as to be considered “canonical.” I am trying and failing to convey to Everett my belief that his fiction seems, to me at least, to be some of the most important and radical American fiction published in any century.

But Everett is having none of it. The text is just the text and interpretation, he suggests, is above his pay grade.

“Stories,” he tells me, “are stories.”


Everett’s own story begins in 1956, when he was born in Fort Gordon, Georgia, a military base which would later be renamed Fort Eisenhower as part of efforts to remove associations with the Confederacy. Discharged from the army, his father moved the family to Columbia, South Carolina, where Everett grew up. His paternal great-grandfather was Jewish, from Texas, and he married a formerly enslaved woman. Their child, Everett’s grandfather, became the first doctor in a family that would later boast a number of physicians and dentists.

Having grown up in the South, where he enjoyed his childhood, Everett has complicated, occasionally conflicting, feelings about the region. “The United States has used the South as a wonderful scapegoat,” Everett told an interviewer in 2005. “If you have a really awful member in your family, anytime you do something bad you can point to that member of the family and feel good about yourself—think you have done better. […] The North and the large western urban areas have excused their behavior toward minorities, the American word for downtrodden and disenfranchised peoples, by blaming the South for all the evils in the land.”

After graduating from high school in Columbia at 16, Everett moved to Miami for an undergraduate degree in philosophy. There, he demonstrated an interest in Ludwig Wittgenstein and a knack for logic. He supported himself by teaching and playing jazz guitar. Later, he moved the Pacific Northwest, where he worked on sheep and cattle ranches and attended the University of Oregon for a brief stint of graduate work in language studies, specializing in ordinary language philosophy. That specific school of philosophy, insofar as I am able to grasp it, seems to insist that language itself can complicate how we understand and interpret the world. Its proponents believed that many philosophical problems arise out of the abstraction and misuse of language, and that these problems could be better understood, even solved, if we paid more attention to the language we use and the context in which we use it. Explaining his eventual disenchantment with the formal studying of philosophy, Everett said that the philosophical ideas that concerned him most were, he felt, best approached through dramatizing them in fiction.

coverAfter he dropped out, Everett wandered through the country, worked odd jobs, and later moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he began an MFA in Creative Writing at Brown University. Shortly after graduating, he published his first novel, Suder (1983), about a baseball player who goes on an odyssey after a spectacularly bad season, then began a career writing and teaching for a living. Everett bounced around the country again, this time teaching creative writing at universities. One of these was the University of Wyoming, during which time he lived on a Native American reservation. He fell in love with the West’s sparse, dramatic landscapes. He never left.

“I am a Westerner,” Everett said in that same 2005 interview. “I don’t think about the South. I don’t want to return and live in the South. I want to see the sun set on the ocean.” He now lives in Los Angeles with his fourth wife, the writer Danzy Senna, and their two children.

Though he had long ago left South Carolina, he hadn’t quite finished with it, at least not in his fiction. In 1996, Everett’s most well-known short story, “The Appropriation of Cultures,” was published in the literary journal Callaloo. It tells the story of Daniel Barkley, a young Black jazz guitarist who, irked after being egged on by some white college kids at a bar near the University of South Carolina to play “Dixie”—a 19th-century song nostalgic for the pre-Civil War American South, once popular in minstrel shows—notices that white people lose interest once he plays it. Later, when Daniel tries to buy a pickup truck, he notices a Confederate flag sticker on the windshield. The seller apologizes and offers to remove it, but Daniel insists on keeping it.

The sight of Daniel driving around in a pickup with a Confederate window sticker attracts much attention and confuses those close to him. By the story’s end, Black Americans throughout South Carolina have appropriated the symbol, wearing Confederate flag lapels, putting the Confederate flag in their car windows, even using it to “dress the yards and mark the picnic sites of Black family reunions” until, eventually, the flag simply disappears from sight.

coverLater, in 2004, he wrote an epistolary novel with the scholar James Kincaid, A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid, made up of fictional emails about the titular South Carolina senator’s fictional attempt to tell the history of African Americans. Thurmond is perhaps best known for holding the longest ever filibuster (24 hours and 18 minutes), which he staged in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

South Carolina, which was the first state to secede from the United States and the site of the beginning of the Civil War, has a notably complicated relationship with its past and its attendant racism. In 1989, when Everett was 33, he returned to Columbia, the city in which he’d grown up, after being invited to speak at the South Carolina State House. Instead of discussing his connection to the city, as I’m sure his audience expected him to, Everett used the opportunity to inform them that he would not speak there while the Confederate flag—that “symbol of exclusion,” as he has called it—was still being flown there, before walking off the stage. When, 26 years later, a 21-year-old white supremacist walked into a Bible study being held at a church in Charleston, murdering nine people in one of this century’s most violent anti-Black crimes, a debate broke out over the fact that much of South Carolina’s Confederate past was still on display in the state. Graywolf, Everett’s former publisher, posted the full text of “The Appropriation of Cultures” on their website following the massacre. A month later, in July 2015, then-governor Nikki Haley signed a bill to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol.

If, as Marx would have it, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living, it seems to weigh especially heavily on Everett’s. Anthony Stewart, a professor of American Literature at Bucknell University, once said that Everett “writes about the experience of being Black, but he does not write about the experience of being Black as a problem to be solved or a condition to be endured.” For Everett, as a writer, that has meant exploring the evolution of American racism, from dramatizing small, personal moments of racial microaggressions to more seismic interrogations of its history with lynching, what Everett once referred to as “a white American pastime”.


Among academics who follow and write about Everett’s work, there appears to be no consensus on how to begin approaching his 24 novels, four short story collections, six books of poetry, and one children’s book. This is to say nothing of the fact that Everett is an accomplished painter, though this is not something many critics or academics incorporate into their understanding of him. Everett himself views each work as distinct, though he admits that he sees all of the works (except Suder) as being in conversation with one another. His style is for the most part uncategorizable, and the shape of his career, if you were forced to draw it, would be an endlessly widening gyre. It’s not a case of there being one too many exceptions to the rule. The exceptions, by which I mean the books that make it hard to discern Everett’s thematic, political, and cultural concerns, are the rule.

covercoverOne thing that can be said with a degree of certainty is that Everett enjoys playing games with his readers. Whether it’s dramatizing a philosophical and linguistic problem for readers to ponder over, giving racist characters playful names like Chalk Pellucid or Pinch Wheyface, or even through finding new ways to force readers into reconsidering the process through which they draw meaning from engaging with a text, Everett’s writing is marked by an unwillingness to ever settle into what might be expected from it. To give two examples: Glyph (1999) is narrated by a baby with an IQ of 475 who won’t speak, and I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009) tells the story of a young man named Not Sidney Poitier, who was raised by Ted Turner and bears a striking resemblance to Sidney Poitier, in which Everett himself appears as an eccentric professor.

coverWhen Everett was commissioned by an independent press to write an introduction to The Jefferson Bible (2004)—Thomas Jefferson’s attempt at creating his own condensed version of the life of Jesus by translating and abridging the gospels—he used the opportunity to set the record straight on Jefferson’s life. He highlighted the fact that Jefferson had enslaved hundreds of people and had a sexual relationship with the enslaved woman Sally Hemmings, with whom he fathered multiple children. The work featured an imagined dialogue between Everett and Jefferson. The introduction also expressed a certain degree of admiration for Jefferson, who at least aspired towards intellectualism—something which could be not said of then-president George W. Bush. (Everett has been outspoken about his disdain for Trump, whom he credits with making it permissible to be so stupid in America today.)

In 2019, Everett released The Book of Training, a prose poem that takes the form of a found document, specifically a handbook on breaking (training) slaves. It fooled me. When I bought a second hand copy, I remember being surprised after noticing racist marginalia commenting on the text. Somebody had not gotten the point Everett was trying to make. That person was me. Everett had, of course, written the marginalia and baked it into the published book. He got a good chuckle when I told him this, and said that, while he never could have foreseen it, he was, of course, delighted by my misreading.

coverA year after The Book of Training, Everett published Telephone, which features three different endings. Which ending you read depends on which of the three nearly-identical covers you happened to buy. (Each featured a compass pointing in one of three directions.) The novel is Everett’s most formally experimental to date, and perhaps the most notable example of his efforts to completely absolve himself of responsibility for what his work means.

There is an approach within art and literary criticism to understanding an artist’s work by dividing their output into periods—early, middle, and late, for example. Many artists’ concerns change over time, and their art often changes to reflect this. Sometimes, it’s possible to pinpoint certain developments in a career—aesthetic, political, or formal—to a single work. While it’s tempting to try to map changes onto Everett’s career, the work simply does not permit it. Themes and landscapes might recur for a book or two then disappear, only to reappear a decade later. Categories, like colors, refuse to stay within the lines, bleeding into one another. Ideas stretch out into new forms before doubling back on themselves. An endless, widening gyre.


Everett’s latest novel, James, is a reworking of one of the most important works of American literature, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Now Everett, who turns 68 this year—and who, despite having flown under so many people’s radars for close to four decades, has managed to elude fame, earn a die-hard following, and, at the very moment decide he’s ready, make the move from an independent to a large, corporate publisher—appears set to gain his widest readership yet.

coverIts publication coincided with the film American Fiction, an adaptation of Everett’s best-known novel, 2001’s Erasure, receiving the 2024 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Directed by Cord Jefferson, the movie has won a slew of awards, dusted off arguments about diversity within the arts, and nearly made Everett a household name in the process. The movie, like the book, follows Theoloneus “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a little-read writer struggling against publishing’s demand that his books fit into its conception of what Black audiences want. When his agent laments that his books just aren’t Black enough, Monk responds, “I’m black, and this is my book.” He is enraged to find that his novels have been shelved in the African American studies section, rather than under fiction.

As a joke, Monk writes, under a pseudonym, an exaggerated parody of what publishers expect, replete with drugs, deadbeat dads, single mothers, violence, and rape. Written in an “authentic” vernacular (“There be all these beautiful, fine-ass bitches walkin round wearing nuffin but strings over they nipples and shit”), the novel, Fuck, is a massive success, enriching Monk—and leaving him more despondent than ever, feeling like a cultural and literary sellout. Everett has made clear on a number of occasions that he is not Monk, and Monk is not him. But he’s also said that he shares a number of experiences and frustrations with Monk—specifically, the expectations around his identity as a Black man struggling to reconcile his individuality with the collective Black identity imposed on him by white America.

American Fiction is an enjoyable, accessible, and Hollywood-friendly adaptation of Erasure, though it lacks much of the book’s acid ironies, sanding the edges off the acerbic racial, intraracial, and class politics in the process. One of the notable ways American Fiction diverges from Erasure is its ending. Whereas Erasure ends with the scene of Monk at a prestigious award ceremony, terrified of being found out as the writer of Fuck, American Fiction takes the story a beat further, ending on a playfully metafictive note, showing Monk being driven around the lot of a Hollywood studio. The script of his novel in his hand, he glances knowingly at a forlorn-looking Black actor dressed as a slave.

When Erasure was first published by the University Press of New England, Doubleday wanted to republish it as the inaugural book in a series showcasing African American authors. The imprint was called Harlem Moon, and it did not last long. The irony of life imitating art was not lost on Everett. “I couldn’t do that to my book,” he told Bookforum in 2005, “even though I was tempted by the idea of invalidating the imprint with this particular book.”

After almost three decades at independent publishing houses, and two decades after turning down Doubleday’s imprint, Everett’s James—which some are already calling his “masterpiece”—was sold to Doubleday in what was described as a “major deal.” His move from Graywolf to Doubleday coincided, give or take a year, with the retirement of his longtime editor, Fiona McCrae. Everett’s first few novels, which were published by Faber & Faber, were edited by McCrae. When she decided to leave Faber for Graywolf in 1994, Everett followed. He stayed at Graywolf for almost 30 years, during which time he maintained a strong and productive editorial relationship with McCrae, who allowed him total creative freedom.

James is Everett’s first book not to be edited by McCrae. When I asked him how he felt about the move from Graywolf to Doubleday, Everett said that he felt loyalty to people, not institutions. He made clear that he was very happy at Graywolf, and there didn’t appear to be animosity surrounding the move. He went into his interviews with publishers and editors with quite a bit of skepticism about the big publishing houses. After all, he said, he’d begun his career at a big publishing house. (Suder was published by Viking.) In the end, he went with Doubleday and Lee Boudreaux, whom he described as “a delight to work with,” as his editor.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has long been one of Everett’s favorite novels, and he cites Twain as the writer who first showed him the power of humor. The decision to write his own version of it, he explained, did not arise out of any dissatisfaction with Twain’s novel. He says that despite the flaws and unevenness of the novel—due, in no small part, to the fact that Twain abandoned it for two years—Everett has read it 15 times and still admires it. His interest in reimagining the story spiked when he began to think more deeply about the relationship between Huck and Jim.

Everett’s version revolves around Jim, or James, who escapes from slavery after learning he may be sold to a man in New Orleans and separated from his wife and daughter. While in hiding, he meets Huck, who tells him that his family has already been sold off, and so begins James’s journey to rescue them.

Though James’s mission is to save his family, much of the novel’s focus is on his relationship with Huck.“ It’s not hard to see that the only true father figure in the novel is in fact Jim, for Huck,” Everett said. “That was intriguing, and I started to do a little research, because I became interested in Jim, and started to realize that no one had tried to write any part of this story from the point of view of Jim. Which I found really bizarre, but I of course had to admit to myself that I had never really thought of it either.”

Cartoonish as he was, Jim is a largely sympathetic figure in Twain’s novel, but he is not a three-dimensional character. At that time, his friendship with a young white boy was taboo and regarded as progressive; retrospectively, the novel has received a lot of flak for its racist stereotypes and epithets. “James’s story is not one that Twain would have been capable of writing, and had nothing to do with his experience in the world,” Everett told me, “however much he might have witnessed a lot of the social conditions of the time.”

By telling the story from Jim’s perspective, Everett completely reframes where its conflict lies. Through it, we discover how James and other enslaved people learn to survive by playing dumb for the benefit of their white captors. Everett knew from the beginning that language would have to be central to James’s story. “The lynchpin for everything was language,” he told me. “To me, that’s the most important part because that’s how we understand the world.”

Early in the novel, James teaches his nine-year-old daughter, Lizzie, and some of the other children who are slaves how to “signify,” or avoid addressing “any subject directly when talking to another slave.” When the slaves are alone and out of earshot of white people, they slip into speaking to one another in standard English—what we call code switching today. It’s only with the appearance of white people that they speak in the dialect that we see Jim use in Twain’s novel.

“White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” James tells the children. “The only ones who suffer when they are made to feel inferior is us. […] It always pays to give white people what they want.” At one point, he notes that it’s important to occasionally make a particularly egregious grammatical mistake so that white people can feel superior and correct them:

Lizze cleared her throat. “Miss Watson, dat sum conebread lak I neva before et.”

“Try ‘dat be,’ I said. “That would be the correct incorrect grammar.”

“Dat be sum of cornbread lak neva I et,” she said.

“Very good,” I said.

Inasmuch as James shows the power of language to oppress, central to the novel is the idea that language can also be a tool of resistance. At its core, the book is about language and power—who possesses them, and what that means for those who don’t. Throughout all his suffering, and despite his initial lack of agency, language becomes a sanctuary for James. When he begins reading some books during his trip down the river with Huck, he feels that he is elsewhere, finally able to tap into an experience that goes beyond his own chattel existence. During naps, he dreams that he is speaking with philosophers like Voltaire, Locke, and Rousseau, playfully debating them on how some of their writing condoned, and was used to justify, slavery.

“Language is also our only refuge, and it’s our only way of maintaining contact with people that make up our world and our community,” Everett told me. “It’s the only thing that allows us privacy from our oppressors, so language is necessary in resistance.”

coverEverett’s characters are often lonely, solitary types—the subdued hydrologist narrator of Telephone, the ambivalent painter who narrates So Much Blue, Monk in Erasure—and it’s not a stretch to say that many of them are seriously depressed. But their depression stems not just from chemical imbalance, but the world in which they find themselves—and how frequently they are misunderstood within that world.

James is no exception. He is intensely lonely and afraid as he travels up and down the Mississippi River, looking for his family, unable to be or express his authentic self. And even if he finds his family, they will still be enslaved, still be seen and treated as property, still never be legibly human to those in power. Despite all this, James endures. After he meets a slave who gives him a pencil stolen from his master, he begins scribbling down his thoughts, writing his own story into existence. Later, when he discovers that the slave has paid the ultimate price for stealing that pencil, James’s resolve to rescue his family from bondage strengthens, and he realizes that the violence done to him will have to be met with more violence.

Everett told me he rejected the term “revenge fantasy” that some reviewers used when writing about The Trees. Revenge fantasy, correction, complication—Everett rejects all of these ways of interpreting The Trees, and has reservations about any attempts to similarly interpret James, which will surely be made in time. Revenge, correction, complication—like slave narrative, or Black, or white—are, after all, just labels. And though labels are a way to help us frame our understanding of something, they are also another layer of abstraction we apply to things, ultimately further complicating how we (mis)understand them. I suspect that labels are the very thing that led Everett to seek answers in the philosophy of ordinary language—and, I imagine, to his decision to eventually abandon it.


The Percival Everett International Society (PEIS) was founded in 2014 by a group of American and French academics “to foster critical and cultural engagement with Everett’s work by academics, independent scholars, and others interested in his writing and other artistic production.” One of the founding members of PEIS, Anne-Laure Tissut, teaches English Literature at the University of Rouen in France and has translated many of Everett’s novels into French. When I asked her about Everett’s writing, and the process of reading and translating Everett over time, Tissut noted the difficulty in trying to say anything representative about his work. “And isn’t that the thing with Everett,” she said. “Beyond the many similarities to be found between those works in conversation [with each other], each follows a distinct path and develops its own formal and more generally aesthetic features, addressing its own specific issues.”

For Tissut, it’s about seeing resonances in the works. She is reluctant to endorse specific readings and doesn’t think it’s helpful to segment and understand his work in periods—there are too many exceptions. She has, however, noticed an evolution in some of his recent works towards a more open interrogation of racial prejudice and violence in America. Tissut qualified this by saying that Dr. No, which foregrounds Everett’s longstanding interest in the idea of negation and nonsense—which is not unrelated to the project of ordinary language philosophy—ensures that any attempts to bundle and understand recent works together would mean omitting and overlooking certain works.

Everett himself occasionally attends PEIS conferences, engages with the academics who study his work, and fields questions about it. I recently attended via Zoom a conference held at the University of Paris, at which Everett answered questions about The Trees. During that particular event, organizers had invited the French filmmaker Alexandre Westphal for a screening and discussion of his 2022 documentary, Through The Writer’s Mirror, about Everett and his work. The film was shot over five years and features a series of interviews with Everett, filmed mostly at his home in Los Angeles. In it, Everett appears unusually unguarded, at times sheepishly talking at length about the history of lynching in America or, when consulting maps of Wyoming, about the lakes and rivers he fished while living there.

coverLater, I spoke about my attempts to interview and understand Everett with Joe Weixlmann, copresident of PEIS and the editor of Conversations with Percival Everett, a compilation of three decades’ worth of notable interviews with Everett (the cover of which features a picture of Everett with his pet crow, Jim). Weixlmann explained that Everett doesn’t want to limit reader’s interpretations of his work. “There is nothing to tell,” he told me, “only text to consider.”

For me, the precise joy derived from reading Everett’s fiction lies in its embrace of contradiction and ambiguity, in its gameness to confound. My favorite Everett novel, 2017’s So Much Blue, arguably his most deceptively simple and yet most artful novel, seems to be divorced from many of the themes and ideas whose surface I have spent the past several thousand words trying to scratch. It follows Kevin Pace, a depressed, aloof, middle-aged abstract painter living with his wife and children. Despite occasional moments of public and fiscal recognition for his art, Kevin has managed to remain at arms length from his contemporaries, and he generally prefers the solitary work of marking art in his studio to company. The secrets he keeps from his wife—an infidelity, a horror he witnessed in El Salvador, and something his teenage daughter confides in him—drive the novel’s plot.

Kevin decides to obscure and abstract these secrets, and the guilt they have created, on a canvas he keeps hidden in a second studio. After his wife learns that he has kept their daughter’s secret from her, they get into an argument, and Kevin decides he doesn’t want to keep his other secrets any longer. He stops himself from speaking “pointless apologies, empty words,” and instead takes his wife out to the studio to show her his painting, on which he has buried his secrets in shades of one color—blue. His wife is confused, but he insists that now she is looking at everything there is to know.

Like Kevin’s painting, Everett’s writing is filled with secrets. Sometimes, we might just not know how to read them.

Tadhg Hoey
writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Stinging Fly, Dublin Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMB, and elsewhere.

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