October 22, 2015

Book Review: "Half an Inch of Water," by Percival Everett

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Half an Inch of Water, by Percival Everett

Half an Inch of Water
By Percival Everett
Graywolf Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Percival Everett is such a great writer, he can churn out a collection of lesser fiction and still have my respect. With that said, Half an Inch of Water is a collection of lesser fiction. Before I go into too much depth about why, let me start with two points. First, it's significantly different than the other two Everett books I've read, so I give him points for stretching himself. Erasure and I Am Not Sidney Poitier were both wild and hilarious satires on racism in America, where Half an Inch of Water is a set of quieter stories about life in the American west. My second point is this isn't my favorite style of fiction. While I believe there's a place for this "ordinary stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things" style of writing, I don't feel it's the only marker of literary fiction.

Before I get into the negatives, there were a few great stories in this book. I was especially fond of the mystery "Finding Billy White Feather," where the narrator searches for a man who might not exist and certainly isn't who he seems to be. Let's not let the fact that Everett virtually reprises this story with "Graham Greene" detract from its goodness. I also enjoyed "Liquid Glass," which fits a lot into twenty pages - humor, complicated relationships between friends, suspense, grotesquerie, and a little touch of the surreal to close things off. Plus the collection is put together well enough. The characters all do have realistic arcs that double as the stories, Everett uses unique but clear symbols to parallel his plots (the horse/mule duality on "Wrong Lead," for example), and so forth. It definitely feels like "serious fiction," though not necessarily great or challenging fiction. So someone out there could love this collection, but that someone wasn't me.

Why not? Well, part of it is the sense of déjà vu I alluded to earlier. Everett returns to many of the same plot devices over and over again; rescuing lost people, fishing, searching for someone who might not be real. Maybe Everett intended to create a story cycle, but what instead happens is the stories blend together, to the point where I read the rescue story "A High Lake" and wondered if I wasn't reading the rescue story "Little Faith." Problem number two is in the writing itself. Some might praise these short declarative sentences for being clear and concise, but I found them boring and lifeless. I Am Not Sidney Poitier was written in a vaguely similar style, but I could appreciate it for two reasons. First off, the simple language allowed the humor and satire to pop out more. Second, I wasn't faced with paragraph after paragraph along the lines of "He rode out to the lake. He looked around and saw horses and cows. He rode back." That isn't an exact excerpt, but I think you get the idea; it becomes dull and deadened at even 163 pages. Luckily, Everett is so prolific that he'll probably write five more books by the end of the decade, and I bet they'll be good ones. Still, this book too wrapped up in its own formulas to really stick with me. I'm disappointed, basically.

Out of 10: 6.5

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Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, October 22, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |