Half an Inch of Water by Percival Everett
Graywolf Press, 2015; 163pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
I’ve come to think of Percival Everett as a generous writer. One who serves up the kind of subversively obscure stories most writers would probably scuttle. Come to think of it, Everett’s a bit like Daniel Lowry, the 14-year-old fly fishing protagonist in “Stonefly,” a story included in the author’s latest collection, Half an Inch of Water. When Everett wades out into the shallows of his imagination, he’s likely to bring back a freakish two foot rainbow trout that “couldn’t have been there in the first place.” He’s a writer who loves to expose incongruities in logic. While that usually leads him to a punch line, the stories in this collection tend to drive toward more somber conclusions.
In “Stonefly,” Daniel discovers a monstrous trout swimming near the site of his older sister’s tragic and slightly mysterious drowning. Perhaps the easiest explanation for the trout’s appearance is that it serves as a metaphor for Rachel Lowry’s death. Her drowning is an overwhelming event that Daniel claims he doesn’t want to understand. For six years, he neither smiles nor confides in his parents or his therapist, leading them to suspect the worst about his emotional health. Daniel fends off their incessant doting with snark and sarcasm until that reservoir runs dry and he dramatically tells them all off. He decides that what he really wants is to catch the beautiful but hideously sized trout that no one believes he’s seen. As one might expect, traditional fly fishing strategies fail him. Daniel eventually indulges a surprising impulse and creates a very unconventional lure. When this apparently senseless move proves successful, he smiles. It’s as if he has finally confirmed that, in the face of a tragedy that defies satisfactory explanation, the most potent form of consolation is freedom from the need to understand.
The stories in Half an Inch of Water are mostly ruminations on mortality and ego. Everett’s characters often face death or injury. They are hunted by predatory animals of the two, four, and no-legged variety. They also have to reckon with the judgments they make of others and assumptions they make about themselves. Tending more toward his artful and poetic side, Everett’s sense of humor is muted in this collection, as is his penchant for magic realism. The conspicuousness of death among the steady processes of life lends these stories their poignancy and the inscrutable nature of tragedy is an overarching theme.