Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

American Desert – by Percival Everett

Theodore Street is an academic whose career is in freefall. On his way toward the ocean, where he intends to drown himself, he is decapitated in a car-accident. The mortician sows his head back on using monofilament so as to make a respectable-looking corpse. Three days later, at the funeral, Theodore Street sits up in his open coffin to the horror of the assembled congregation. I don’t read that many comic novels, but the last one I read that started as well as American Desert was Don Quixote. That may seem like an exaggeration, but this novel, for the first twenty pages or so, is quite simply hilarious. From his depiction of the coroner’s assistant to the head of the English Department where Ted Street worked to the church-minister conducting the funeral proceedings, Everett displays a real talent for comic characterization and an exhilarating showboating verve topped only by Cervantes. Needless to say, he can’t possibly sustain it over three-hundred pages.

In the case of this novel, the reasons he can’t sustain it are very specific. With a premise like this, there are a few different directions the story can go in, but none of them are conducive to good comedy. So what are the author’s options? Well, the new interpersonal dynamics between Ted Street and his family are good for a laugh or two, and Everett exploits this territory with impressive subtlety and skill. Then there’s the inevitable confrontation with the media, scary religious cults who believe Ted’s the devil, not-so-scary new-age nutbags who hail him as the messiah, creepy geneticists and military-types who want to breed immortal armies, etc…out of all of which Everett extracts a fair amount of satirical currency. If you enjoy ufology, conspiracy-theories and new-age crap for their sheer comedy, then this novel is for you. The problem is that there inevitably comes a point where the narrative must become something else, and what can a novel with such a premise become but a meditation of some kind? Not so much on the meaning of life, but on the meaning of death. This is where the narrative starts to get clumsy.

Then there are places where the economy of symbols just breaks down. For example, being technically still dead, Ted has an autopsy performed by a secretive pathologist working for the military. She replaces his vital organs, but most of them in the wrong location. After he escapes the military compound, he steals a bus from one of the new-age crazies outside the fence so he can save the children who have been abducted by the leader of a fundamentalist Christian cult. The narrative continues:

“Behind the wheel of the bus Ted screamed, a pain cutting through his middle. He almost lost control, but managed to stop the vehicle along a narrow shoulder just shy of a bridge. The pain was so unexpected, and because his organs were a mere jumble inside him, he could not say what it was that hurt. Then the pain was gone but more than gone, because there was no lingering trace of the sensation. The pain sucked deep inside him where he simply couldn’t feel it; so it was less than gone, because it was there.”

This is typical of the kind of sloppy, pointless, disconnected American internal monologue which, for a generation or two, we’ve been asked to treat and defer to as literature. Still, it’s inevitable that any novel will contain one or two instances of bad writing. I’m being too picky here – for the most part Everett writes quite well. As the plot accelerates, he has one or two problems with depicting the action in different simultaneous scenes, and the narrative starts to come across like those 1982 reruns of Santa Barbara. But then again, maybe that’s the point. As a literature prof himself, maybe Everett has some nod-wink intertextuality vibe goin’ on. Personally, I didn’t see it. Maybe he’s just not that smooth with plots. But I reiterate, for the most part, this is a well written novel. Perhaps it’s just a slightly ill-conceived novel. Trying to make this material work without any stylistic hiccups is basically impossible. All in all, then, a highly creditable effort.

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