Trout Fishing in America

Telephone BY Percival Everett. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press. 224 pages. $16.

The cover of Telephone

Greil Marcus: Starting in 1983 with Suder, you’ve published, I think, twenty-five books of fiction. In your new novel, Telephone (Graywolf, $16), the narrator is a geologist; one day, playing chess with his twelve-year-old daughter, she misses a move—and soon she is diagnosed with a disease that in a short time will destroy her mind and then her life. He can’t save her—but one day he finds a note in a shirt he’s ordered online, from New Mexico, reading “Help me” in Spanish. He places another order; another note, speaking for more than one person. He can’t save his daughter—maybe there are people somewhere he can save. What was the impetus for the novel? How did it come into focus?

PERCIVAL EVERETT: I think some of it comes from being a father. Realizing how helpless one is—we do what we can to help, but really we’re just trying. I think we want to succeed in helping the people we love, and when we can’t—in this novel, the character had to find someone he can help. I think he’s trying. I think he’s depressed—and his life revolves around the one thing that he is doomed to lose twice.

Well, depression seems to be an undercurrent in your novels at least over the last ten years, going back farther in some cases. There are a few lines from “The Day Comes” in your 2015 story collection Half an Inch of Water where you’re describing a character: “He was depressed. He was not simply sad. He wasn’t simply bored. He felt a weight on his chest that made him want to cry. Sometimes in the night he did. He would discover himself crying and that discovery worked as fuel for more tears.” This is a person who we meet again and again through your books. And yet for these characters, depression seems to act not just as fuel for more tears, but as fuel for determination, for taking action. It’s not immobilizing.

Depression is an interesting thing. I have a thing that I say to myself: I won’t listen to this. I won’t let this depression get me down. And I think it’s right that it’s fuel. I think my characters are often combative in nature. And their response to this enemy—depression—is to fight against it.

There are many scenes in your books where depression seems paired with fishing. It seems like a stream in your fiction.

If I start talking about fishing, fishing as the metaphor that it is for so many things—first of all, I’ve never gotten back to my car in the daylight. I go and I park and I hike in to the river. And I start fishing, and every place I look upriver is beautiful to me and I can’t wait to fish it. And I imagine where the trout will be lying and I think about how to present the flies, whichever kind of fly I’m using in that particular water. And I move through it, through the river, and miles go by, and I’ll look at the sky and I realize, Well, I’d better get back to my car, but when I turn around—and this is where fiction comes into my life with fishing—when I turn around it’s a different river. From perspective, from direction of flow, from being on the other side of boulders, and then I feel a need to fish all these spots that I’ve walked by that I haven’t been able to see. And it gets dark on me. And I’m out there, I never make it back. I can’t look directly at a beautiful river—I find that I have to turn away and steal glimpses of it, because it’s too much for me.

And in a way that’s how I think of art, too. Like if I see a painting that just moves me—I don’t know whether it’s fear or just intensity, but I have to steal glimpses of it.

Percival Everett, 2011. Courtesy the author
Percival Everett, 2011. Courtesy the author

Can you think of a particular painting where that happened?

I know the first time it happened. In the National Gallery, there was a very long wide rectangular painting of Jackson Pollock’s. And I walked in and I just couldn’t move. And I learned a lesson there that stayed with me—though I didn’t understand it at the time, as I was stealing glimpses of portions of the painting—that we don’t enter a work of art all at once, we enter it in spaces, and they all add up to the work, to the whole, and that’s what I articulate to myself when I’m not writing, because I try not to think about ideas about writing when I’m at work. But it comes back to me over and over again.

I want to stay away from the story as it develops, but there’s one incident that seemed to me the center of Telephone. It reminded me of something John Irving once told me. I was asking him about Roberta Muldoon, a character in The World According to Garp. Roberta is trans, and while writing the book Irving got the idea that she was formerly a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles. And he thought to himself, Well, try to make that work. But if I can get it on the page, the book will achieve a kind of credibility it never would have had without it. In Telephone, the hero is in place, he’s in New Mexico, he’s trying to think of how to save the people he’s found—and suddenly, there’s a knock on his Motel 6 door, and these people show up to help him: the people in the local poetry workshop. And I thought, We’re talking about a dangerous mission. People can get killed. And my response was, Yes: Make that happen! Can you tell me about that moment?

I was trying to find some way to make poets useful in the world. I’m teasing, of course. I can’t say that I thought about it a lot, except that one of the wonderful things about people who write with no promise of compensation, who make art for no reason except they want to make it, is that they’re good. And these people are just good. And I couldn’t see them doing anything else.

One of the people in the poetry workshop says, You know, I’m not going to show you any of my poetry—“It ain’t fit for human consumption.” I love that line—it made me want to read her poetry. I want to read something that’s not fit for human consumption!

Seeing as I write it! Yeah, I like all of those people. And they just showed up—that was again something that just happened.

So they showed up for you the same way they show up knocking on the Motel 6 door.

Yes.

So often in your books, the main character is a professional. He might be a geologist, as in Telephone. Or he could be a sheriff, a doctor, a professor. But he’s an educated, thoughtful person. And he goes about his business and at a certain point the reader realizes he’s black. Nothing about him before that points that way—there are no clichés of speech, of setting, of context. There’s a wonderful moment in your story “The Appropriation of Cultures,” in the 2004 collection of stories Damned If I Do, where a character goes to an all-white neighborhood in South Carolina to look at a truck that he’s seen advertised. He shows up at the house where the people are selling the truck. A man answers the door; he’s shocked. “I couldn’t tell over the phone,” the man’s wife says—If I’d known this guy was black I’d tell him the truck’s already sold, but here he is. And that’s a kind of moment that happens over and over again. In “Little Faith,” the first story in Half an Inch of Water, there’s a moment where the vet, a local vet in Wyoming, Sam Innis, is out on a call and this dialogue takes place: “‘You know, you’re okay,’ Wes said. Sam looked at him. ‘How’s that?’ ‘You know, being a black vet out here. I have to admit, I had my doubts.’ ‘About what exactly?’ ‘Whether you’d make it.’ ‘You mean fit in?’ ‘I guess that’s what I mean, yeah.’ ‘Wes, I grew up here. Grade school. High school. I’ve never fit in, I probably will never fit in. I accept that.’ Wes’s face was now blank. He didn’t understand. He was just a degree away from cocking his head like a confused hound.” There always seems to be that moment, or almost always. So I’d like to hear about that.

Well, you know, it’s an experience that I frequently, in our culture, get. There was a review of my second novel, Walk Me to the Distance. The reviewer praised the violence of the novel as being sublime—but thought necessary to add a one-sentence paragraph at the end of the review that said, By the way, the novelist is black.

I don’t mind that, but I would have felt better if he’d ended other reviews with By the way, the novelist is white. It’s a strange thing—we’re all acculturated to read in this corrupt and biased way. If I don’t have a character comb his Afro or cross 125th Street at Lenox Avenue in the first ten pages, for all purposes the reader is going to assume that character is white. And that bothers me. In fact, in my novel Glyph, maybe fifty pages into it, the main character, the narrator, who is a baby, calls the reader out and says, “Have you to this point assumed that I am white?”

And I’ve had a lot of people say to me that the book caught them doing that. And it wasn’t my intention to catch anyone or make anyone feel shame, but just to call out how we do read, since that novel is about reading.

When I was being hired at USC, someone who’s now a friend, a very close friend, when he saw my name—he’s kind of a prickly guy—said out loud to the office staff, “That’s the last thing we need is another fifty-year-old Brit.” And the receptionist, who is a highly overqualified black woman working as a receptionist, said, “I’ll have you know he’s a black cowboy!”

Greil Marcus is a contributing editor of Artforum. His book Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of the Great Gatsby will be published by Yale University Press in April.