Percival Everett, Assumption

The 22nd offering from Los Angeles’s Percival Everett is a detective story—or, rather, a trio of elliptical riffs on the genre. Yet for a novel called Assumption, there sure aren’t many of them to be found between its covers. In part that’s a veiled warning from Everett himself, whose plots zigzag so quickly and frequently that readers would be foolish to make any predictions up front. But it’s also because there simply aren’t any police chiefs world-weary enough to make assumptions in the small New Mexico town of Plata.

What Plata and Everett’s novel do have is Deputy Sheriff Ogden Walker. He’s not a great law enforcement officer, but also no fool. What he is is curious, and always well intentioned. Perhaps best described as “a good man” (by his mother, no less), Ogden is a quirk-less character in a place where quirkiness is not valued; the most eccentric habit among his co-workers is that one guy likes to eat pine nuts by the handful.

Suffice to say, these people are not equipped for a murder. But over the course of Assumption that’s exactly what Ogden comes up against—a whole slew of them, in fact. The first story concerns a mysterious coffee can and an underground network of white supremacists; the second, a missing-persons case that leads to a prostitution ring up in Denver; and the third, a slain patrolman from the Game and Fish department.

Ogden and his co-workers do their best, but their default reaction is plain disbelief that any of this is happening in Plata. It’s not until halfway through the first case that Ogden realizes why he’s so antsy: “Nothing makes people more interesting than their being dead. Sad, but true.”

At least Ogden is determined to see the cases through. His sheriff just wants it all to be over—not for fear of scandal, mind you, but because it’s too stressful. “I’m a fat old man who doesn’t like mysteries,” begins his attempt at rallying the troops. “You two can’t stop me from eating a cheesecake in the next hour, but you can go figure this out and help me sleep at night.”

Everett is writing at a breakneck speed here, with almost no space allotted for physical descriptions or interiority; as a result, all of Assumption positively zips by. This turns out to be both blessing and curse. Details and complicating twists dot every page, providing a kind of candy-like instant gratification, but this also includes the endings, wherein the culprits are revealed. Like unmarked highway exits, blink and you’ll miss them. This is particularly a problem for the final story, “The Shift,” which requires a massive last-minute leap of faith on the reader’s part, not to mention a far longer postmortem than its author is willing to grant.

It’s tempting to link this restlessness with Everett’s prolificacy. As mentioned at the top, this is the 55-year-old’s 22nd book; you can imagine him sitting at his computer, stealing glances at notes for his next project while begrudgingly typing out the ending of the one at hand. Everett has a well-documented history of trying on various stylistic shoes and going for a stroll—in fact, he made excellent use of similar detective tropes in his last novel, 2009’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier. He just kicked this particular pair off a little too early.

Graywolf, 272 pp, $16.50, paperback

(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, December 18, 2011)

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