Is Percival Everett the black male Joyce Carol Oates? Is Joyce Carol Oates the white female Percival Everett?
Perhaps there’s nothing to that comparison except that both are literary artist as prodigiously talented as they are stunningly prolific—delivering quantity and quality.
Just a year after his 22nd novel, The Trees, was named a Booker Prize finalist, Everett has given us his 23rd novel (which share shelf space with his six collections of poetry and four books of stories)—a smart and funny riff on high-level mathematics, identity, race and James Bond films called Dr. No.
The protagonist couldn’t be less Bond-like—he’s a 35-year-old virgin and professor of mathematics at Brown University (Everett’s alma mater) née Ralph Townsend who goes by Wala Kitu. Wala, he explains, means “nothing” in Tagalog, and Kitu is Swahili for “nothing” which makes poetic sense as Kitu is an expert on nothing. Nothing, it turns out, is something—something so valuable that the book’s murderous arch-villain, a billionaire named John Sill, sees it as the key of global domination (basically if you can turn something into nothing, the sky’s the limit; moo hoo ha ha).
Sill also sees his scheme as payback to America for his father’s death, which was intertwined with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “Professor, think of it this way. This country has never given anything to us and it never will. We have given everything to it. I think it’s time we gave nothing back.”
Although it has serious undertones, Dr. No is mostly an engaging comic romp in which Everett may set a record for plays on the word nothing. Three favorites:
“Here’s one. A mathematician is asked if he’d rather have cold coffee or meet God. He says he’ll have the cold coffee.”
“Why does he say that?” I asked.
“He’s been told that nothing is better than meeting God and cold coffee is better than nothing.”
“Do you really believe in nothing?”
“It’s that powerful?”
“Like nothing you’ve seen. Or rather haven’t seen.”
“I just received a grant that I hope leads to nothing,” he [Katu] tells a colleague.
As Ron Charles observed in the Washington Post: “Most of Dr. No is a goofy anti-thriller that revolves around Sill’s evil schemes and Wala’s halting efforts to thwart them. Yes, there are gorgeous robots, a devastating space laser, a pool of man-eating sharks under the dining room and lots of diabolical chuckling. But needless to say, Wala is no Sean Connery. He knows nothing. He’s never touched a woman. And forget the Sunbeam Alpine Series II. Wala doesn’t even know how to drive. All of which Everett exploits to parody both the Bond films and the bizarro world of physics and mathematics in the outer limits of reality.”
“The result,” Michael Magras wrote in BookPage, “is a memorable work that has fun with spy-novel tropes while also addressing the treatment of Black people in America. Dr. No takes a while to get going, but there’s plenty of classic Everett sophistication to delight his fans. ‘Nothing matters,’ Wala says. In more ways than one, this brilliant novel demonstrates how true that can be.”
- Read an excerpt from the novel
- Read his Guardian interview
- Watch Everett discuss literature and race
Percival Everett’s Top Ten List
1. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759–67)
2. The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler (1903)
3. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
4. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
5. Cane by Jean Toomer (1923)
6. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
7. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927)
8. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (1971)
9. Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (1987)
10. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984)