Percival Everett American Desert Reviewed by Terry D'Auray

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American Desert

Percival Everett


US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-7868-6917-8

291 Pages; $24.95

Publication Date: May, 2004

Date Reviewed: July 28, 2004

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2004



Fantasy, Horror, General Fiction

Since I'm pretty selective about the books I chose to read, I'm rarely disappointed when I step away from my standard crime and mystery fare into what others call mainstream fiction. Everett, a long-published author who was new to me, writes wholly original, wholly unclassifiable fiction. In 'American Desert' he blends dark comedy, biting satire and the fantastic into a narrative that is nothing less than fantastic itself.

'American Desert' is the story of Theodore Street, an unsuccessful, untenured college professor living the classic life of quiet desperation with his wife and two children. While driving to the beach to commit suicide, Ted's car collides with a UPS truck and his head is severed from his body and left, unscratched but unattached, on the road. "That Theodore Street was dead was not a matter open to debate." is the opening sentence of 'American Desert'. The balance of the book belies that straightforward assessment.

At his funeral three days later, Ted bolts from his open casket, his head clumsily stitched in place by the mortician, grabs his family and runs for home, clearly alive. As Ted and his family grapple with the reality of the unreal, first with fear, then with dawning acceptance, they grapple, too, with the unreal utter craziness of contemporary American culture. Ted is hounded by herds of feral reporters, all eager for an exclusive interview with "the man who returned from the dead"...details at eleven. He is branded a Satan and kidnapped by a religious cult lead by an obscenely obese man dressed in red and taken to their desert hideaway. The cult enclave is complete with antique canons, newly polished and at the ready, and 30 children standing by to be used as hostages in the event of an attack. Ted escapes with the help of super-secret government military operatives and is taken to Roswell, where he is prodded, tested and finally cut open by a government scientist who removes his organs for examination and, only at Ted's request, hastily throws them back inside his body. (Well, without his pancreas, which was dropped on the floor and never retrieved). He escapes yet again, into the clutches of another religious group that view him as the Messiah and ask for his words of salvation. "Does anyone have a phone?" Ted replies.

Despite the lively satirical goings on, 'American Desert' isn't a comic freak show. Ted's second life is a living dead state of hyper awareness, increased sensitivity, and perceptive honesty. He becomes after his death the aware, caring, compassionate and decent man that he never was in life. Everett deftly mixes absurdity with the sagacious, social insanity with personal insight, and rabid excess with pure-hearted simplicity. 'American Desert' becomes not just sharp social commentary, but a deeply felt, and hopefully poignant story of decency, personal redemption and human compassion. In prose that is artful and literate, Everett explores the philosophical, the metaphysical, the physical and the psychological boundaries of human life and social culture.

Theodore Street - devil, savior, freak and hero. Alive and dead. Everett's 'American Desert' is a darkly fantastic allegory underscored with compassion and caring, as hopeful in its vision as it is unique in its conception.