‘The Last Heat of Summer’ by Percival Everett

I’ve become addicted to the work of the American writer and academic Percival Everett. He has a near-magical capacity for combining absurd humour and with trenchant political satire, and for reconciling clever literary experiment with the simple pleasures of character and plot. To attempt to summarise what happens in this unnerving story runs the risk of making it sound silly or pretentious. Let’s just say it’s set in 1962 in a small town in the American southwest and that it is divided into twenty sections, each set on 1 September. Our narrator is the only child of a black family; his best friend Errol is a Kiowa Indian. They watch coyotes, catch fish, discover a cave full of bats, try to track a mountain lion. At one point the narrator kisses Frannie Dawes, which causes some friction between the boys. Then the circus comes to town…  I’m obsessed with this story. Everett has delivered a fable that builds through repetition so that by the end the resonances he creates are deafening. Our failing relationship with nature, the stain of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the sudden logic of violence, the fragility of family life. It’s about all these things and none of them. My kind of short story.

First published in Ploughshares, Spring 2003, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Damned If I Do, Graywolf Press 2004/Influx Press, 2021

‘The Appropriation of Cultures’ by Percival Everett

I was introduced to Percival Everett by Courttia Newland (more on him later). Since then I have tried to read as many Everett books as possible (there are over 25), but he is not very widely published in the UK, so books have proved hard to get hold of. Everett is an absolute master of storytelling and subversion. He loves to play with form and narrative and expectations and ‘The Appropriation of Cultures’ is him as his mischievous, provocative best. A black musician, Daniel is playing slide guitar in a bar one evening with his band, when some white frat boys ask him, “Play Dixie, play Dixie!” Dixie being, of course, a famous blackface minstrel song. Daniel thinks about refusing, but chooses to take on the song and repurpose it for himself, “deciding the lyrics were his”, and totally transforms the atmosphere of the room. The story develops remarkably after that, no spoilers, but it’s phenomenal.

From Damned if I Do, Graywolf 2004