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How to Get a Head in America
By Margaret Black

American Desert
By Percival Everett
Hyperion, 291 pages, $24.95

‘That Theodore Street was dead was not a matter open to debate,” announces the opening line of American Desert, the newest novel from the amazingly versatile, perennially interesting, and pretty completely neglected Percival Everett. Of course it quickly turns out that Ted’s status is a matter of debate, and for the rest of the book we get a very funny, yet oddly moving, satire on things American, particularly our preoccupation with the nature of death and the afterlife, if any.

Ted had been on his way to commit suicide—driving to the ocean so he can drown himself by breathing in deeply of salt water—when a traffic accident neatly slices off his head, leaving his body otherwise intact. His wife, Gloria, is called to the morgue to identify the head—the fact that she does not identify his body continues to bother her—and then both parts of Ted are released to a funeral home, where the mortician does a rather sloppy job of sewing Ted’s head back on and his lips together with blue fishing filament. During the funeral service, conducted by the Bible-thumping Reverend Larville Staige (our author is not a believing man), Ted sits up in his open coffin, but can’t say anything until given a Swiss Army pocket knife to cut the stitches holding his mouth together. The shock and awe of his resurrection swiftly empty the church, except for Ted, Gloria, and their two children, who escape by a back door while the neighborhood around the church explodes into riot and flames.

At the same time that the Streets are attempting to make some sort of sense out of Ted’s return from the dead, they must also deal with a media frenzy. Later Ted is kidnapped by a crazy cult whose leader thinks Ted is Satan and who plans to shoot him, well, back to hell, using a cache of Civil War weapons. Later still, Ted is snatched by supersecretive American forces who fly black helicopters out of Roswell, N.M. This crazy group doesn’t have aliens hidden away, but they have managed to clone 40 copies of poor Jesus (only 27 have survived) from DNA in the blood found on the lance of the Roman soldier who pierced Christ’s side at the Crucifixion. (The lance had been hidden away by the Nazis, of course.) The military are interested in anyone who’s managed resurrection, since they are lusting to create an army of soldiers who resemble the Cauldron Born, unkillable undead zombie types, as all you readers familiar with Lloyd Alexander’s books or Welsh mythology know.

Gloria can’t persuade the police to look for her kidnapped dead husband. “ ‘Any identifying marks?’ Gloria was growing steadily more impatient, her foot starting to tap. She said, ‘He has a scar which runs completely around his neck. He’s all stitched up.’ Benoit typed. ‘His head was recently severed from his body, but has since been reattached.’ Benoit typed.” So Gloria employs the brilliant tactic of trying to collect his life insurance—she has a valid death certificate, after all. Initiating a claim, she knows, will activate at least one investigator who will search his little heart out in order to prevent her from getting the money.

Ted also is, or was, an academic who has just lost out on a bid for tenure. He was popular teacher but unpublished—a chunk of satire here—and he’s not been as faithful as he might have been, so there’s a lot of dry humor about relationships, too.

What’s genuinely moving in this novel is the reaction of Ted’s more or less realistic family, particularly his confused, angry, and frightened young daughter and son. Gloria, too, must travel into impossible territory, and I have to say the author does this extraordinarily well. Only in the wrap-up, when Gloria’s future must be settled satisfactorily, do we feel that the author is just throwing in whatever’s necessary, however unbelievable, to get the job done. The other thing that works very well is Ted’s growing awareness that he cares for his family more than himself, and this gradually draws him toward a true decency and compassion that is clearly what the author proposes is the most desirable end or purpose in life.

Everett is a truly gifted author, not unlike Michael Frayn or Anthony Burgess. Like both of them, he experiments with many kinds of fiction and many types of character, which shows great range and virtuosity, but can also seem to indicate a lack of passionate engagement with any of them. He’s a little more savage than Frayn, who would never maul a character so humorlessly as Everett does Ted’s sister, and he writes a somewhat lighter-weight book than Burgess, although many readers will be grateful for just that. Everett is, however, a persistently inventive, entertaining, and insightful writer, and I hope that eventually he achieves the reputation he deserves.

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