Erasure, by Percival Everett. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England. 256 pages. $24.95. BUY NOW


Percival Everett is an experimental novelist and an English professor at the University of Southern California. Erasure is his thirteenth book of fiction. He has bounced from a major New York publisher in 1983, when he was a promising young African American writer, to small houses and university presses, his face glowering from his book covers more unhappily every time.

He's never fit. Often you can't tell if his characters are black or white. Often it doesn't matterˇexcept that black novelists are supposed to write about black subjects. To illuminate the condition of the African American in the United States at this time. To be a credit to their raceˇor, at the least, to be their race.

Everett has had a lot of fun with thisˇin 1997 in Frenzy, his delirious romp with the likes of Dionysus and Tiresias; in 1999 in Glyph, the Tin Drum˝like story of a superliterate but resolutely mute baby, a gang of academic kidnappers, and Roland Barthes ("I'm French, you know," he says to cover for himself in any situation); and as far back as 1983 with Suder, where the third baseman for the Seattle Mariners, batting under the Mendoza line, turns himself into Icarus.

"Have you to this point assumed that I am white?" baby Ralph asks in Glyph, after many pages of note writing ("Would you explain to me what Lacan means by the sliding signified and the floating signifier?"ˇRalph's father, a pathetic academic, is desperately trying to make it in the deconstruction game), footnotes, and dialogue between the likes of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. "In my reading," Ralph says of the books his mother piles in his crib, "I discovered that if a character was black, then he at some point was required to comb his Afro hairdo, speak on the street using an obvious, ethnically identifiable idiom, live in a certain part of town, or be called a nigger by someone. White characters, I assumed they were white . . . did not seem to need that kind of introduction, or perhaps legitimization, to exist on the page." That could be the complaint building in Everett's fiction up to Erasure, in which Everett blows his cover: the cover the literary world insists on. You want black, he says, I'll give you black. You're going to have to stomach a deconstructionist as the narrator, his family of doctors, including a gay plastic surgeon in Arizona, but I'll give you black. On the front of the book jacket I'll even give you a nice photomontage of a little black boy holding a gun to his head.

Thelonious Ellison ("Call me Monk") is an experimental novelist and a professor in California. He tells the reader straight off that he has dark skin and a broad nose, went to Harvard, listens to Mahler, Charlie Parker, and Ry Cooder, and can't dance or play basketball. His novel The Persians was dismissed because as a reworking of Aeschylus "one is lost to understand what it has to do with the African American experience." He's in Washington, DC, his hometown, to deliver a paper to the Nouveau Roman Society: "F/V: Placing the Experimental Novel."

This short academic paper is a key to Erasureˇto Ellison's bitterness, his instinct for satire, his will toward impostiture and self-abasement. "There was really nothing at stake for me, or so I had convinced myself, in reading the paper I had written"; he hopes it will make people mad, but he's not sure they're smart enough to catch on. At first the paper reads like a parody of postmodernist academic jargon; then it begins to get interesting. Then it is hard to follow, just as Ellison says it will be, but there's a fervor, a commitment to language, that keeps you reading. "A reiteration of the obvious is never wasted on the oblivious," Ellison finishes up.

Soon enough, Ellison's world begins to shatter. His father was a suicide, seven years before; now his sister is shot to death at an abortion clinic. His brother, married and a father, comes out of the closet, and his life breaks apart. His mother's Alzheimer's destroys her personality. Through all this Ellison is competent, resourceful, devotedˇand a new book, We's Lives In Da Ghetto, a first novel by a young black writer named Juanita Mae Jenkins, a searing, horrifying portrait of the degradation of the American black woman by the American black man, is slowly driving him nuts.

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