Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Percival Everett's Watershed

In my continuing exploration of the fictional world of Perceval Everett, I recently read his novel from 1996, Watershed. As he does in some of his other books, Everett writes a story that has some of the ingredients of a genre work, replete with murder and a mystery. But the plot unfolds in such a way that makes it clear that fulfilling genre expectations is not what he has in mind. This doesn't make the novel any less suspenseful or addictive as a read; if truth be told, this aspect only enhanced my pleasure reading it. As much as I enjoy reading crime fiction, I have to say that sometimes I get a little bit weary of reading novels that have very similar rhythms and plot beats, as skillfully as those rhythms and beats may be delivered. With Everett, a writer of many gifts, you get a sense of control combined with unpredictability that is downright invigorating. 

The back cover copy of the book describes it well: "On a windswept landscape somewhere north of Denver, Robert Hawks, a feisty and dangerously curious hydrologist finds himself enmeshed in a fight over Native American treaty rights. What begins for Robert as a peaceful fishing interlude ends in murder and the disclosure of government secrets. Everett mines history for this one, focusing on the relationship between Native American activists and Black Panther groups who bonded over their shared enemies in the 1960s civil rights movement."

The murder mentioned here is the murder of two FBI agents, and I'm certain I've never before read a story focused on a hydrologist, let alone a Black hydrologist. But Everett, as is his wont, delves into his character's profession in such a way that it becomes fascinating. Early in the novel Robert Hawks, out in nature to stay at a cabin and do some fishing, meets a Native American woman who may be mixed up in something suspicious, and since the murder of the FBI agents apparently has to do with government secrets relating to water rights and land use on Native American territory, he comes to suspect that this woman may be the one who killed the two agents. In effect, he becomes the story's investigator. But as he pokes around, he finds himself getting more and more involved (not romantically) with the Native American woman, and she introduces him to several others living on her reservation.  He finds that the woman and her cohorts are upset about an apparent contamination happening on their land. The connection between Hawks and the Native Americans ties in to scenes from the past that go into the bonds forged in the 60s between Black and Native American activists, and Hawks recalls the role his father and grandfather played during the political upheavals of the 60s. In short, there's a lot going on in Watershed, but as usual with Everett, economy is key. The new edition of the book, published this year, is exactly 200 pages. As someone who tends to favor compression over the maximalist approach, I found the novel an intensely pleasurable read, as well as a gripping one. Everett writes in precise, clear prose, with no one thing outrageous happening, yet he often has you off-balance. As you read, you are never quite sure what to expect next. Suspense comes not from twists (which can be overused and overrated), but from a skillful development of events and a feeling that something truly weighty, important, is at stake. 

One other note. Both the Everett books I'd read earlier, Erasure and So Much Blue, are about language in some way, and Watershed is as well. Throughout the novel, Everett incorporates excerpts from treaties between the United States government and various Native American nations, selections that are all a matter of public record. Among other things, these excerpts provide a remarkably concise way for him to present the cruelty and at times absurdity that are part of Native American history. 

You may rest asured that I shall adhere to the just and humane policy towards the Indians which I have commenced. In this spirit I have recommended them to quit their possessions on this side of the Mississippi, and go to a country west where there is every probability that they will always be free from the mercenary influence of white men, and undisturbed by the local authority of the states. Under such circumstances the General Government can exercise a parental control over their interests and possibly perpetuate their race. 

Article 9. The several tribes of Indians, parties to this treaty, acknowledge their dependence upon the Government of the United States, and agree to be friendly with all the citizens thereof, and commit no depredations upon the person or property of said citizens, and to refrain from carrying on any war upon other Indian tribes; and they further agree that they will not communicate with or assist any persons or nation hostile to the United States, and, further, that they will submit to and obey all laws and regulations which the United States may prescribe for their government and conduct.

To uphold the claim would be to adjudge that the direct operation of the treaty was to materially limit and qualify the controlling authority of Congress in respect to the care and protection of the Indians, and to deprive Congress, in possible emergency, when the necessity might be urgent for a partition and disposal of the tribal lands, of all power to act, if the assent of the Indians could not be obtained.

The driest of language, language of the purest bureaucratese, contains and codifies horrors.

On to another book of Percevel Everett's.

No comments: