The American West Rediscovered in Percival Everett’s Half an Inch of Water
Percival Everett, the distinguished English professor at the University of Southern California, spoke as guest reader at ODU’s Literary Festival last October, where he read parts of his book, “Half an Inch of Water.” This long-awaited short story collection is his first since 2004’s “Damned If I Do.”
Everett is the author of over 30 books, which range in form and subject matter. The characters of “Half an Inch of Water” reside mostly in Wyoming near an Indian reservation. They are farm animal vets, students and elderly seeking solitude. Some find missing little girls and others are on quests to find a long lost relative or a human head.
These characters aren’t just enjoying the expansive landscape through horse riding and fly-fishing. They embody a certain pain and joy that exudes in their humanity. Everett’s prose is swift and economical, showing his character’s wit and longing in a sympathetic, but realistic way.
His story, “Stonefly,” for example, is about a teenaged loner named Daniel, who quietly mourns the death of his sister, which happened six years prior. He’s cold and withdrawn with his therapist, Dr. Feller, and calls her an idiot.
Daniel camps to listen to the creek, but is interrupted by his therapist. She behaves in typical therapist like ways, but Daniel stays true to his angst-riddled, 16-year-old self. When she tells him it’s okay to be angry, he replies, “I’ll get angry at 3 p.m. Will that work for you?”
In essence, Daniel is a boy like many others who is lost and seeks refuge only to find it when he witnesses small, but common natural occurrences.
Another standout story is “Exposure,” which is about a father and his teen daughter. Long divorced, the main character, Ben, wants to have a good relationship with his daughter Emma, but it’s strained.
He suggests a hiking trip. The good idea goes wrong when Ben is bitten by a snake and he and Emma run into a hungry cougar. Such is life in the mountains. For most of the story, Ben and Emma are disconnected until they have to figure out how to get away.
Their solution is to scream while slowly walking forward. Ben is still hurt from the snake bite, but Emma starts to laugh and cry at the same time, proof that their relationship could be repaired.
For a collection this rich and deep, the book itself is quite thin. Copies range from 157 pages to 88. It’s a light read from one of America’s best-kept secrets in contemporary literature. It’s even more of a surprise that for a book this small, the characters and settings are so complex.
If you’re looking for stories about the American West or about deeply troubled, but sharp characters, then “Half an Inch of Water” is ideal from an author who is regarded by NPR as “one of the most gifted and versatile of contemporary writers.”