Erasure by Percival Everett
by Percival Everett
When I lived in Vermont the bulb catalogues would arrive in the mail when you were at your weakest—in the dark, cold days of February when you were certain winter would never end. One particularly bad winter—I think it was the winter we had one ice storm after another and it snowed so much that we could no longer plow our driveway, but had to gin up someone to bulldoze it. Three times. So you can imagine my fragility of mind when the first bulb catalogue came, brimming with photos of fringed Parrot Tulips and daffodils with the word “lingerie” in their name. And the offer of 25 (or was it 100?) free bulbs with a $45 order. Count me in. Then several days later, another catalogue with a similar irresistible offer. I kept placing orders. Then the exquisite arrival of spring, when, every year, I would kneel in front of my garden and scrape the remaining crust of icy snow from the tiny green shoots of the purple hyacinths and weep.
Summer passed. In September I put the garden to bed and exchanged my tank top for a flannel shirt to admired the flaming colors of the New England autumn. Imagine my surprise when, in late October, the bulbs began to arrive. At first it was a joy to return home from work in the cold and the dark to find a whole box of bulbs that I had forgotten I'd ordered. I put them aside to plant over the weekend. Then the next night another box. And then another. Finally it became Hitchcockian and I started referring to the nightmare as a modern remake of his movie “The Birds,” retitled “The Bulbs.”
I had a similar experience after the first month of the coronavirus lockdown. In my morning perusal of the superb website lithub.com I found a reference to the many (who knew?) subscription services for books. They would mail you a surprise box every month! Or every two months! Or both! Or all! I signed up for a few. And then reconsidered and signed up for a few more.
Then the books started arriving. Boxes of them. Books I have never heard of. Magnificent books. New books. Old books. Nothing yet with the “lingerie” in the title, but still, books I would never otherwise have laid my eyes or my hands on.
One such book is Erasure by Percival Everett. It is nominally about a Black author nicknamed “Monk” whose career has bottomed out. His latest manuscript has been rejected by seventeen publishers, even though his previous novels have been “critically acclaimed.” All this happens while he watches the meteoric success of a ghastly novel titled We's Lives in Da Ghetto. So he writes, under a pseudonym, his own ghastly novel titled My Pafology, which is published to great acclaim. He is left to deal with the personal and professional fallout of that misadventure.
Erasure speaks directly and without mercy to race in America. His writing is transgressive, unsparing, and shocking. It is also hilarious. I was at once laughing and thinking it was wrong to laugh. The whole story messes with you. The story is, simply, true about us, about the way we are, about the way it is. Although it was written nine years ago, it could have been written yesterday. Add it to the ample evidence of our collective refusal to make progress on issues of race in this country.
Everett includes asides about trout fishing, wood working, his story ideas, philosophy, bullshit literary theory (hilarious), latin phrases, and childhood memories. But mostly it's all true. I read it in one long sitting several weeks ago. I have yet to stop thinking about it.
I am so happy I ordered those book boxes.
I can't cite the passages I loved the most because taken out of context they wouldn't make sense and would seem more insulting than funny. But here is one long passage that illustrates what a fantastic writer he is, his humor, and the dark side that shimmers underneath it all:
“Would you rather lose your sight or your hearing?” Lisa asked one evening while we all sat at the picnic table behind the house. The mosquitoes were just starting to come out and the crabs were almost gone. “Hearing,” Bill answered quickly. “There's too much in this world to see. Paintings, landscapes, faces. You can get around if you don't hear and you can learn to read lips.” What about you, Monksie?” Mother asked. She saw these sorts of things as good conversation and good for us. “I don't know. I'd miss hearing music and crickets. I'd miss seeing things like paintings like Bill said. I guess it would be hearing. I'd rather lose my hearing.” “Me, too,” Mother said. “What about you, Father?” Bill asked. Father had been chewing and listening to us in that absent way of his. He looked at Lisa, then me, studying us, it seemed. He looked down the table to Mother, nodding his head. Then he looked longest at Bill. He then took us in as a group, and said, “Sight” with a smile that was not quite a smile, but enough for us to laugh as if we had been teased rather than insulted.
You can buy Erasure at your local bookstore. If they don't have it in stock, order it from them. Waiting five or six days to support your local bookstore is a small price to support that community resource. If, inexplicably, you have no local bookstore, and you don't have it in you to start one, you can order it online at Indibound and Amazon.
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >