Percival Everett—author, academic, fly fisherman, woodworker, painter, and mule trainer—has a talent for militant irony that feeds on variety and extremes. Refreshingly profane, his novels have nimbly led such sacred cows as African-American studies and Native American reparations to the abattoir. In Erasure (2001), he gave us the down-and-out novelist Thelonius Ellison, who, fed up with being told his fiction isn't "black enough," writes a book called My Pafology—and promptly garners Oprah-sanctioned fame. Everett's new book takes on another worthy if easier target— George W. Bush's America—but this time he engages in stylistic overkill and undermines the novel's few salient merits with a morally suspect premise.
The Water Cure has been billed by its publisher as a novel that confronts "the dark legacy of the Bush years" and "follows the gruesome reasoning and execution of revenge in a society that has lost common moral ground." Further gauntlets are thrown down by a title and a cover––which depicts a prisoner tied to a chair in a basement—that evoke the horrors perpetrated at Abu Ghraib and CIA "black sites." At first, Everett sets his teeth in the subject at an oblique angle, but the conceit quickly slips away. The plot can be summed up by a limerick that arrives halfway through the novel:
There once was a man with a daughter
Who returned home to learn of her slaughter.
He found her assailant,
Became his acquaintant,
And slowly did drown him in water .
The man in question is the narrator, Ishmael Kidder, a reclusive and recently divorced romance novelist who insists on bringing his own food to restaurants. In the opening pages, he learns that his elevenyear- old daughter—"too young to have understood enough of life to cherish it, but old enough to have taught me to do so"— has been raped and savagely murdered. The daughter, Lane, is poignantly remembered, and the passages where Kidder reminisces about her are the book's few moments of respite.
The tragedy of the killing briefly, if awkwardly, reconciles Kidder with his ex-wife, Charlotte, and the scenes between them are affecting and, at times, unexpectedly humorous. Kidder then successfully tracks down the killer and stuffs the "air-sucking saggy-shouldered woefully unslaked (in so many ways) hairy-knuckled droopyscrotumed human body" into his trunk. The rest of the action take place at Kidder's house in the hills near Taos, New Mexico, where his literary agent, Sally, comes to check up on him and where, in his basement, he hides and tortures the killerturned- victim.
This is already enough material to sustain a two-hundred-some-page novel, but it accounts for less than a third of The Water Cure, which Everett otherwise packs with Kidder's regurgitations of linguistic theory and sophomoric musings on Platonic dialogues. As for the latter, we are greeted with this side note: "Fuck you if you think that references to archaic philosophical notion are mere erudition, which they are not, but fuck you anyway because this is my world." When Kidder flexes his "mere erudition" on the subject of water—a generous survey that takes us from Thales of Miletus to Jesus and wine, all the way down to the CIA's "water treatment," which inspires Kidder to use the same method— the results are more than tedious.
The father's wrath toward the killer turns out to be outshone only by his hatred for Bush:
The stupid fuck was elected by stupid fucks and supported by stupid fucks and even occasionally fell out of favor with stupid fucks, but stupid fucks, being stupid fucks, either forgot or forgave and again loved the kind stupid fuck who loved war and money and butchering the language while chewing at the inside of his cheek, polluting the air with slogans like, If you can't find your enemy, create one and When in doubt, fear and hate, though my favorite unused one is It's Us against Them, too bad We're not all Us.
This repetitive outpouring of vitriol might be taken as an indication of Kidder's helplessness—and a severe case of Bush hatred—but Everett takes pains to describe our political miasma in such a way as to demonstrate how it could seep into his hero's soul and guide it. The invocation of Abu Ghraib overpowers any questions regarding the child's killer—questions of guilt and evil that Everett prefers to keep at the geopolitical level. When Thomas Jefferson, with his "sex-with-a-slave" glazed eyes, visits Kidder in a hallucination, it's simply an opportunity for Everett to compare him to Bush as another despicable leader, although one who was at least capable of vision. (In The Water Cure, these apparitions are induced by pot.) Instead of capturing the moral ineptitude of the Bush administration, The Water Cure turns out to be yet another addition to the heap of time-serving books, such as Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint, which, instead of arguing that we are all implicit in our country's moral failings, declare that we are all acting under the influence of the president.
Everett is often hailed as a writer who is unafraid to say exactly what he means— and that's once again the case in The Water Cure. But since when was authenticity the sole standard by which to judge a political stance or a work of art? To make a character a repository of half-baked insights and moral grotesqueries, as Everett does, reduces horrors such as Abu Ghraib to motivational tools. The Water Cure will win praise from likely corners—they will say it strikes a chord—but a resounding and lasting novel about "the dark legacy of the Bush years" will have to originate from another source.
Thomas Meaney is literary editor of the New York Sun.