The prolific Percival Everett tackles the timeless psychic tug-of-war between fathers and sons with zigzagging, psychedelic verve in his twentieth novel Percival Everett by Virgil Russell. Everett has mastered his playful, self-referential style, and seems more intent than ever to alternately puzzle and move the reader, often in the span of a single sentence.
At its most elemental, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell is a story about a dying father and his middle-aged son’s struggle to connect. But the book’s premise also requires the reader to ask (almost on every page): is the narrator the son or the father? Let’s just drill in on how I read it: the book is narrated by the son, who seems to be imagining his father’s life, narrating his own, and dreaming up a plot that brings them all together before the literal and figurative end.
If the reader presumes the narrator is the son, then the son’s name is Virgil Russell, which makes the father Percival Everett. Virgil is a photography professor trying to be a decent man. And of course, Virgil also functions as the poet and epic storyteller of his father’s life. Married, Virgil is confronted by the sudden appearance of Meg Caro, a daughter he never knew existed. She offers to be his intern, to Virgil’s chagrin.
The thematic connection between Virgil’s personal life and the decline of his father is an unusually thin one. One has to read into Meg’s appearance as the reason Virgil contemplates his own distant relationship with his father. Virgil and his father share a few short scenes together, but most of the novel takes place in Virgil’s father’s head, inside a nursing home. Everett the Author is most successful when illustrating Everett the Character’s yearning for his son’s presence, a yearning that can be read, as in the following passage, simultaneously as the father forgiving the son, and as the son forgiving himself for being unwilling to close the distance between the two.
The fact of the matter, how that phrase has always bored me, along with it all boils down to this and I didn’t want to say anything but, the fact of the matter was that you have always felt guilty for pursuing your own life, feeling that some of that distance from us, your parents, temporal, spatial, or emotional distance, was a bad thing, a shameful thing, pudendum, that you were failing as a son. Let me clue you in to something, it’s all failure, we’re all failures, as sons, as fathers, as mothers, siblings; it is a necessary truth.
The reader is taken on a journey through the father’s past, from his military service in Vietnam to his struggles to be a good father to Virgil following his return from war. The novel hits a number of high emotional notes, especially in this passage, when the father’s friend Billy dies and the father imagines what it was like for Billy to lose his daughter.
I could see Billy fishing in some far-off stream or pond even though I did not know if he liked fishing or had ever fished in his what I imagine to be staid accountant’s life with his daughter beside him teasing him about something or another perhaps the way he said the word apricot and there he was reeling in empty hook after empty hook happy because his girl was there with him and maybe his wife but wasn’t it odd Billy thought there by that stream or pond how when a child dies all other relationships seem so dismissible forgettable shallow.
The book is full of melancholy insights on aging. This one resonates with a cynical sincerity and one wonders whether Everett the author is referring to his own career, twenty novels in.
To a considerable degree, by the time we have reached a certain age, it varies for each of us, we have said all we meant to say. Everything else is either a reissue or an elucidation, a gloss. Some utterances might be reconstructions of some erased pages, palimpsests of sorts, but it’s mere repetition.
Everett’s taste for seemingly improvised conundrums add a frilly, structureless element to Percival Everett by Virgil Russell. The second half shifts into a subplot involving evil nursing home minders and the trapped and abused elderly folk, a plot that seems poorly mortgaged from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. When Everett nails the singularity of human experience in a pithy phrase or succinct passage, I can’t help but wonder why the labyrinth maker and the smoke machines are necessary. Perhaps Everett feels there is a greater thematic intent worth the play. I got the feeling, however, that both Percival Everetts – the Author and Character – were just having fun for fun’s sake, often at the reader’s expense.